A doctor who became one of the earliest victims of the covid-19 pandemic in the UK has now recounted her harrowing experience. In a new case report, she describes her illness and treatment, which included weeks of a last-resort intervention called ECMO that completely took over for her lungs and heart, along with her ongoing recovery.
In a rare instance of a patient reporting on their own case, Anushua Gupta, a general practitioner in Greater Manchester, England, has detailed her journey with covid-19 in the journal Anaesthesia Reports.
According to the report, the 40-year-old Gupta became infected in late March 2020. After a week of dealing with a persistent cough and other symptoms, she was admitted to the hospital on April 1. Her condition quickly worsened, and within days of admission she became so oxygen-deprived that she started to see hallucinations of “a black-winged figure.” Her doctors decided that she needed intensive care, which would require tracheal intubation and mechanical ventilation. As a result, Gupta agreed to be placed into a medically induced coma. Before she was sedated, she was able to see her husband and 18-month-old daughter on a video call.
“I feared that I would never get to fulfill the dream that my husband and I had of living into old age together. However, I had to remain composed for the sake of my husband, who likewise had to be strong for our daughter,” Gupta wrote.
Gupta wouldn’t stir out of her coma for the next two months. During that time, she would become one of the first patients in the UK to be treated with a form of life support known as extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, or ECMO. ECMO uses a specialized device to draw blood out of the body and perform the necessary bodily functions of respiration and circulation carried out by the lungs and heart, respectively. By replacing these functions with ECMO, it’s hoped that the damaged organs can heal enough to save the critically ill person.
Though ECMO has proven valuable in reducing the risk of mortality from severe covid-19, relatively few hospitals actually have the technology available, and many patients still die despite the treatment. Fortunately, Gupta wasn’t one of them. She remained on EMCO for 34 days, and four days after she was removed from the machine, she began to show signs of improvement.
After she woke up, Gupta required months of rehabilitation to regain her ability to talk, feed herself, and move under her own strength, as well as therapy to process the trauma of her experience. Ultimately, she would spend 150 days in the hospital, being discharged exactly five months to the date she entered, on September 1. Following her hospitalization, Gupta has continued to need care to deal with the enduring complications of her illness.
“Seven months following my discharge from hospital, my recovery is by no means complete. I have significant changes to my lungs. It remains unknown whether those changes are reversible,” she wrote. “I was suffering significantly with pains in multiple joints for many months. I feel this may well be what others have described as ‘long-COVID.’”
That said, some aspects of Gupta’s health, like her ability to breathe and tolerate exercise, have continued to improve over time. Her mental health has also gotten significantly better, and she was able to return to work (remotely) by November last year. Despite her ordeal, she feels happy to now have the opportunity to recount what she went through.
“It has given me immense joy, satisfaction and a sense of achievement to be able to tell the tale of my battle with covid-19 and to have my story read by others,” Gupta wrote. “Writing this marks the one year anniversary of when I became severely unwell. I hope this report will raise awareness and give hope to others that one can have a good outcome despite such critical illness.”