Meet Scotland's sickest COVID patient
Grant McIntyre is a Dundee orthodontics professor who - after an unbelievable 128 days in the hospital with COVID-19 - managed to almost fully recover. He’s become known as ‘Scotland’s sickest COVID survivor’, and he and his wife have just written a book about the experience called Dying to Live: The Last Roll of the Dice. He told Chris the full story...
Grant - The journey started towards the end of March last year in the first wave of COVID in the UK when I became progressively unwell. It suddenly became pretty clear that I was indeed suffering from COVID, and after three hospital administrations, things took a turn for the worse and I spiralled towards critical illness. For the first 50 days of that, I was unaware of what was going on. Not only did the COVID attack every corner of my body, but my own immune system mounted what was called a 'cytokine storm'. I'd never heard of this before, but it's where the immune system goes into overdrive and effectively attacks every corner of the body as well. At the same time I went to multi-organ failure. Just about every organ in my body was being destroyed. Up to this point I'd been on all sorts of oxygen therapy, and I have no idea just how much oxygen I've used during my treatment, but I'm guessing having just listened to Leith's very interesting interview that it must be quite a significant amount.
I was then put on to, in essence, a heart lung bypass machine. I had acquired a significant number of blood transfusions, and even with the oxygen machine pumping in vast quantities of oxygen into my blood, for some reason my body wasn't able to retain that oxygen and my blood oxygen levels would plummet on a regular basis whilst on the life support. The doctors were running out of options pretty rapidly, and after over a month of being on the ECMO life support machine, it was decided that the only thing left to try would be a massive dose of steroids over a significant number of days. I'm very fortunate for the doctors making that decision, because that was the turning point. And after 39 days of being on life support, I was apparently able to move an eyelid, and by day 42 to lift a finger on command from the medical and nursing staff.
Chris - How long did it take you to get your muscles back and be able to actually stand up? Because when you've been flat on your back or flipped over prone onto your front - which is how a lot of COVID patients are being nursed, because we're finding that actually it translates into better lung function that way - you basically are not doing any exercise. In your case, you're in a coma for two months. So how long did it take you before you could even just do trivial things again?
Grant - The physiotherapist told me that even despite the fact that he had been moving my muscles, I'd lost a quarter of my body weight by the time I came out of the state of unconsciousness. I struggled to even lift my hand up to feed myself initially, but after 36 days of rehabilitation, I was finally able to stand for the first time. And OK, it was only for two seconds that day, but that was a triumph. And around about 10 days later, I was finally able to take my first footsteps again, but I still needed the help of a wheelchair/walking stick/a zimmer frame and all the other gadgetry to help me get about. And I had gone from being a fit and healthy 49-year-old patient who had effectively walked into a hospital to being partially disabled. And I had to accept the fact that my mobility had been compromised by the length of stay that I had spent in intensive care.
Chris - Leith, Grant's talking about how much oxygen it took to sustain him when he was in intensive care. I mean, do we have any actual figures to put on basically how much oxygen an intensive care unit nursing COVID patients is getting through, and therefore, really, how to do these sums for the world population who's vulnerable?
Leith - Yeah, so it can be 40 to 60 litres per minute of oxygen that a COVID patient will need. And the average stay in hospital can be up to 14 days. In Grant's case, it was much longer. We actually measure the amount of oxygen that's needed every day, just to treat COVID patients in low- and middle-income countries. Today, for example, it's 22.5 million cubic metres in every lower/middle-income country. That's the equivalent of about 3.2 million of those large cylinders. 3.2 million every day. Now we have nowhere near that, which is why so many people are dying now in the south for lack of oxygen.
Chris - Grant, do you touch on these sorts of considerations in the book or is it chiefly focused on your clinical and psychological journey?
Grant - The book is really about our own personal journey of that and my wife and my family. But also we do touch on some of the events that happened around the world and indeed how some of the other countries have suffered as a result of their relative economic situation in comparison to the UK.
Chris - Are you back to normal now or are you still recovering?
Grant - I'm still on the journey. It's been an absolutely amazing journey in many ways. It's been an opportunity to reflect on what's important to me in my life, but interestingly, there doesn't seem to be any end to the eventual journey. Although day by day, things get better; I'm stronger, fitter, back to work, back cycling, back doing a little bit of golf, doing some other sport. I don't have the energy levels that I would have had pre-COVID, but I have learned to live with the fact that my breathing will be abnormal for the rest of my life, and that indeed I have one or two other long COVID symptoms. But I'm very much a glass-half-full person, and it's about making the best of what I've got in life from now on.