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Long Covid – a hillwalker’s experience

Jackie Baxter, a keen hill bagger, wild camper and lover of the outdoors, describes her struggle after contracting Covid-19 at the age of 30.

It’s early March 2020 and I’m plodding my way along a track in the Borders, exhausted and out of breath This seems a bit odd given that the gradient is virtually flat, I’m walking slowly and I’m used to long days in the outdoors. Putting it down to an “off” day, I push myself through the rest of the walk, getting more and more exhausted with every step and let Malky, my other half, drive home. By the time we get home I’m feeling nauseous and unwell. Trusting that I’d eaten something funny and was nothing an early night couldn’t fix, I put my things ready for work the next day and went to sleep.

However, I didn’t go to work, and over the next few days things got worse. Despite not really having any of the symptoms that we were told to look out for initially, we realised that it could be Covid-19. By Thursday evening I was finding it so hard to breathe that Malky called the emergency services. There was no mass-testing at this time, but the paramedics who responded confirmed that it was almost certainly Covid-19. Being a fit and healthy 30 year-old with no underlying health conditions I was told that I ought to be fine in a few days. Days later, the whole country was in lockdown.

Before Covid – a magical winter epic on the Cuillin Ridge on Skye, February 2020

I suffered from an incredibly tight chest making breathing difficult even when resting, as well as exhaustion and spent the next four weeks barely able to get out of bed. For the two weeks that followed I could make it to the sofa on a good day. After that, I was gradually able to get out of the house; initially we tried walking but I found it so depressing barely being able to walk even such a short distance around the block without being horribly out of breath. It didn’t help that Malky, being fit and healthy and out of quarantine, was able to go out for big long runs and bike rides in the amazing spring sunshine.

So I tried cycling – normally I would cycle to work every day and put in big miles a couple of evenings a week, so managing a slow 5km around the park felt a bit pathetic, but it was better than nothing and most importantly it felt like I was getting somewhere. The lack of activity for so long had caused injuries from the past to re-emerge which often decreased what I was able to do even when my lungs would have allowed it. But gradually, over the next two months I was able to carefully push this distance and explore some more of Glasgow. Although it was hard for me to notice the progress, when Malky pointed out how much improvement I’d made over the weeks it really did seem like I was getting better. By the middle of June we managed to cycle out to Old Kilpatrick and climb Duncolm and although I was exhausted afterwards, I had coped.

The relaxation of travel restrictions at the start of July was met with rejoicing throughout the hill-walking community. I was hoping that all my cycling would have helped me to regain some of my fitness and I remember Malky and I relaxing on the top of Beinn a’ Chearcaill in Torridon in beautiful sunshine admiring the bigger hills and making all sorts of plans about what I might be able to do by the end of the summer.

However, a few days later I was hit by a whole new load of symptoms – crippling fatigue as well as a return of the shortness of breath and tight chest that us “long-haulers” now call the “Covid Strangle”. We reduced our ambitions and took plenty of rest days, but even very short, local walks were often too much for me. This was the theme of the next seven months on the Coronacoaster; an unpredictable pattern of good days, bad days and horrible relapses that felled me for weeks, as well as a plethora of much weirder symptoms such as swollen glands, racing heartbeat, bizarre stomach complaints and occasional brain fog. This is what is now known as Long Covid, and it seems to affect around 10% of those infected with Covid-19 irrespective of age.

During the remainder of the summer we tackled small hills on days when I felt up to it, taking enjoyment in being in beautiful places and making sure to have plenty of breaks to appreciate the views; we became masters of taking a tiny walk and spinning it out into a full day. But it was a far cry from the big hill days that I had been used to – our eleven hour snowy epic on Sgurr nan Eag on the Cuillin ridge in February and my mad Monar Round of eight peaks a few years ago seemed like they were part of a different lifetime!

We came up with various strategies to help – cycling seemed to take less out of me, so we chose some routes to allow for using the bike to take the sting out of the day. We had a lovely cycle down Glen Tromie in August which us allowed to climb Meallach Mor, a fairly remote Corbett, with only 350m of ascent on foot. We also managed the Graham Meall Dubh near Ullapool as I got a 150m head start and cut off a couple of miles using the bike; it wasn’t the most exciting hill but was a fabulous viewpoint to the places I really wanted to be.

I was lucky that Malky was happy to not only walk to my very limited and erratic abilities, but also that he was able to carry all of my gear as well as do most of the driving – another thing which left me completely exhausted. This allowed us to do a couple of incredible summit camps, which had the advantage of breaking up the walking over two days and allowing me to pace myself a bit better. One of the best camps was on Sgurr a’ Gharaidh in Torridon; although it was not a success story in that it overstretched me and triggered a 3 week relapse, the views and feeling of freedom were probably worth it.

Sunrise from Sgurr a’ Gharaidh, cause of a 3 week relapse – August 2020

We learned the necessity of having plans A, B & C when planning. My health was so unpredictable; we would often talk about what we wanted to do at the weekend, and then end up having to down-grade it several times as I realised nearer the time that I would never manage it. I would regularly “hit the wall” without warning and be barely able to put one foot in front of the other; not very helpful when halfway down a hill, and I often needed a break, something to eat and to be coaxed back to the car!

The return to work in mid-August heralded another relapse due to mental exhaustion. My boss has been very understanding and allowed me to work from home, but it is still often a struggle. I find mornings particularly difficult, no matter how early I get to bed, and I need to take lots of breaks to space out my work. The addition of work has meant that my already very limited ability to exercise has been reduced further, and weekends and holidays are often spent trying to recover from the week. I was hoping that I might be able to have a bit more energy over the Christmas holidays to get outdoors while I was off work, but what actually happened was that I spent the best part of 2 weeks sleeping and feeling dreadful.

Cruachan Charna; tiny hill, big views – July 2020

Despite being an awful year in so many ways, when restrictions have allowed, we have managed to visit some wonderful places. We had a visit to the Island of Carna in the middle of Loch Sunart – the high point of the island, Cruachan Charna, stands at only 170m high but is a tremendous viewpoint and feels incredibly remote. We also camped out on the cliffs near Faraid Head – a favourite spot of mine on the far north coast of Scotland, where we witnessed one of the best sunsets of the year. We managed to squeeze in a trip out to the Western Isles – despite being very limited in what I was able to do, it felt wonderful just to be there, to camp in some spectacular areas and climb Todun; a small hill, which even by the easiest route, is spectacular.

Sunset from Faraid Head – July 2020

I got sick at the very beginning of the Covid pandemic in Scotland – although we now know that the numbers were much higher, according to statistics at the time there were only around 30 cases in the whole country when I was infected. There is very little evidence to show if people suffering from Long Covid will improve over time. I have now been ill for over 10 months and am seeing no improvement.

I’m very grateful for a Long Covid support group I have found on Facebook – it’s comforting to get some validation from others who are suffering, to know that I am not alone and to share ideas and theories as well as compare symptoms – there are others who have developed heart conditions, terrifying neurological effects and are wheelchair-bound, unable to care for children and have lost their jobs because they cannot work. We are the “silent statistic” – most of us weren’t admitted to hospital so were never tested during the March–June wave of the virus. Although my GP has been very supportive, there is no cure and no real evidence to show if I will ever get better. It is very frustrating that Long Covid has only recently been acknowledged as being real (there are still many calling it a hoax); also that it is seen as a low priority and as something that doesn’t affect the young(ish!). It was described recently as being like Russian roulette – anyone could be unlucky and there is no way of knowing until it happens.

Trying to stay positive over a long period of time is incredibly difficult, especially with no signs of improvement. Those who know me will know that I am generally a happy, bubbly person who tries to make the best of things. I am trying really hard to get my head around enjoying what I can do on my good days rather than getting upset about all the things that I can’t do. As a person who used to spend all my free time exercising, I’m always trying to compare myself to what I could do a year ago, and I have to remember to look at myself day to day instead of looking back.

I have discovered new things to do in the outdoors – we spent a fantastic afternoon on a local loch in an inflatable kayak where we spent more time spinning in circles than actually going anywhere, but it was a wonderful way to enjoy being outside in a more relaxing way. I am also now the proud owner of a pair of roller skates! I still do more flailing than skating, but it’s really good fun and something else interesting to do while my body tries to heal itself. Although most of my hobbies are exercise-related, I have managed to find joy in learning to play new instruments; much to Malky’s horror I am enjoying playing the violin, the viola and, more recently as an experiment to improve breathing, the clarinet.

Kayaking on Loch a’ Chlachain – September 2020

With the arrival of winter, I have discovered that I am now very intolerant to cold. These days I regularly walk or cycle in two down jackets and a fleece, and after it took my toes over an hour to warm up following a ride, I have purchased a pair of reusable hand warmers to put in my shoes. Cold temperatures and wind make my breathing worse too so my GP suggested an inhaler; when I remember to take it with me it does make a difference. Malky has taken to carrying a flask of tea when we go out – this works well to warm me up and also to make us take more breaks.

Although I haven’t seen any improvement in my health since June, I am getting better at listening to my body and pacing myself. I know when I need to stay at home and spend a day resting; as much as I hate to do this and see Malky heading off on some adventure, I now realise how important this is. I’ve learned that if I take breaks before I start to get too knackered then it means I am less likely to “hit the wall” later on, and regular stretching helps keep old injuries from resurfacing. Despite the fact that as yet there is no happy ending, however hard it may seem I have to try to stay positive and hope that I will ultimately make a full recovery.

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