Fiona Crotty developed Covid-19 in March 2020. "I have never recovered," says the 42-year-old healthcare worker, who regards Long Covid as "living with Covid but not being infectious".
Since becoming ill almost two years ago, the medical scientist has had good and bad experiences with the health system.
One of her lowest moments came when a doctor told her she should be grateful to God to be alive and suggested she join a local prayer group. Throughout her Long Covid journey she has also had many positive encounters, mainly with colleagues in Beaumont Hospital, where two consultants have given her hope that some day she will make a full recovery from debilitating neurological and gastro issues.
A quality manager in Beaumont’s haematology department, the Clare woman has worked for only three months since testing positive.
She has felt the discomfort of "not being believed" in her quest to find a cure for her symptoms. But many in the health system have listened – including the HSE chief executive Paul Reid, who she bumped into at recycling bins in Dublin last October.
In one of those ’you’ll regret it if you don’t’ moments, she apologetically approached the HSE boss and asked could she speak to him about her two key concerns: the need for easier access to medical treatments for Long Covid sufferers, especially healthcare workers, and the importance of exemption certificates for those like her who have been advised on medical grounds not to get vaccines.
'I had a terrible pain in the base of my left lung. It was like a knife going in every time I breathed in'
When Crotty woke on St Patrick’s Day 2020, she could not move her arms. Having recently worked flat out with colleagues setting up the Covid-19 testing regime in Beaumont, she thought it might be exhaustion.
“But I knew I wasn’t right. I had a terrible pain in the base of my left lung. It was like a knife going in every time I breathed in.”
Crotty was one of 20 staff in the hospital laboratory who would test positive for Covid-19.
After five weeks of isolating in her Swords home, unable to keep food down and struggling to move because of the stabbing pain in her ribcage, Crotty was admitted to a Covid ward in the hospital where she had worked for over 20 years.
“I wasn’t critically ill. I did not need a ventilator. Everyone from the nurses to the lady who brought the tea were so kind but there were no answers. And that’s nobody’s fault. We were all learning.”
Several months later she learned that Covid had damaged the nerves going through her rib cage and to her stomach.
Because of the damage to her autonomic nervous system, she went from being a three-times-a-week jogger to being unable to walk to her front gate.
Conscious of the huge pressures on work colleagues throughout the pandemic, she returned to work in August 2020. But she still struggled to eat, the severe lung pain was still there and she developed Raynaud’s disease, so was barely able to hold a pen or type. “You are of no use to anyone like that,” she says.
In November 2020, she was advised to take more time off and she hasn’t worked since.
Crotty says that as someone “going into my third year”, she feels passionately about the need for supports for those with Long Covid. “There are quite a lot of healthcare workers with Long Covid and if there was a pathway to recovery just as there are cancer pathways, it would expedite our return to work and take pressure off our colleagues,” she says.
An adverse reaction to her first Covid vaccine means she has been advised by consultants not to have another one, so she was, until January 22nd, precluded from entering cafes and gyms, adding to the sense of isolation anyone with a chronic conditions feels.
‘Not living at all’
While many may feel that the cloud of Covid-19 has lifted, Crotty says that “there are a whole bunch of people with Long Covid who are not living at all” and who don’t know where to turn for help.
"Everything changed" for her when she was referred to Dr David Moore, a consultant in pain management and anaesthesia in Beaumont, who identified the issue with her nervous system.
“He was like an angel sent to me.”
She is now also under the care of Dr Helen Barry, who prescribed medication "and within five days I was eating my dinner".
'I couldn't do yoga, I couldn't drive, I couldn't bake. The little things I had found to do were gone again'
Feeling well on the road to recovery, she had her first Covid-19 vaccine last May and “the whole thing flared up again”.
She developed carpal tunnel syndrome and could not move her arms. Both wrists had to be put into splints. “I couldn’t do yoga, I couldn’t drive, I couldn’t bake. The little things I had found to do were gone again.”
She had surgery but she still struggles.
“I still cannot go walking. After about 10 minutes my stomach will flip. I cannot carry shopping or go up and down the stairs twice without my ribcage hurting. It is all about pacing.”
Like many with Long Covid, she keeps searching for solutions
“The brain fog left after I found a great tonic. My sense of taste and smell came back last summer. The joy is back. To be able to smell food, to smell coffee, to smell flowers. So to me there is some healing happening, but it is very slow.”
Paul Reid did listen that day by the recycling bins and invited her to email him outlining her concerns in detail. She was grateful when he responded and had colleagues follow up with her.
But she is worried that there is now an attitude within the HSE and in Government that exemption certificates for those with a medical contra-indication are no longer an issue since restrictions ended.
“But that could change in the morning. Covid certs could be re-instated at any point. I feel for the future we should have a proper process in place.”
'I am a scientist, I am not anti-vaccination. All my family were vaccinated and they were all fine. I would never tell people not to be vaccinated'
She points out that travel is still an issue and says that other countries such as the UK, the US and Australia have an exemption system.
“I am a scientist, I am not anti-vaccination,” she stresses. “All my family were vaccinated and they were all fine. I would never tell people not to be vaccinated.”
In a statement, the Department of Health said it had been considering the issue of those that couldn't be vaccinated for medical reasons in the context of the requirement to have a Digital Covid Certificate to enter various premises in Ireland. "This requirement was removed on the 22nd January and these issues no longer arise," according to the department.
“There is no change to the current measures in place regarding international travel, including the requirement for a Digital Covid Certificate,” it added.