Dave Kelly and his wife Olive, pictured on his recent discharge from St James's Hospital in Dublin
“There is light at the end of the tunnel,” a Kildare man who spent 15 days in intensive care after contracting Covid-19 has said.
Dave Kelly from Naas fought through two weeks on a ventilator at St James’s Hospital in Dublin while his wife Olive, friends and extended family kept a remote vigil. Although he has been through the wringer and faces a long recovery, having lost significant weight and strength, Dave wants to give a message of hope to those who catch the disease that there is hope of survival.
Not that his Covid-19 experience has been easy. Doctors feared for his life on Good Friday and worried that he would not survive. He was initially thought too weak to take off the ventilator, and faced a tracheostomy procedure - or having a hole cut in his windpipe - to help him survive. He suffered wild hallucinations, attributable to the oxygen he was on to help him breathe.
It has been, says Olive, “probably the worst month I’ve ever spent in my life”.
Speaking by phone from his home in Celbridge on Friday, May 8, the day after he was discharged from hospital, Dave, 61, recounted his experience with coronavirus.
He felt ill on Tuesday, April 7. An ambulance was called to the house but it was thought by the medical team that he did not have Covid-19. However, the following day he was so weak that his GP recommended he go to hospital. Olive had previously felt extremely tired and had had a cough. Although she was not tested at the time, the couple believe that she had the virus, and passed it on to her husband.
“By the time I got to James’s I was hardly able to stand and I couldn’t breathe,” said Dave. “They brought a chair out to me and brought me in - and that was the last I saw of my missus for five weeks.”
He was put on oxygen that evening and placed on a ventilator the following day - where he was to stay, in varying degrees of consciousness, for over a fortnight.
“To say I had hallucinations would be an understatement. There was aardvarks, there was elephants, there was bears, there was everything. To separate reality from fiction was really hard,” he said.
Dave had had a forthright conversation with the doctors before he was put on the ventilator - one of many such chats that the couple would have over the following weeks.
He remembers asking his consultant for ‘a favour’ - to get him out of the hospital - but ‘not in a box’.
“‘And he said, ‘I’ll do my best but I can’t guarantee anything’. I said ‘that’ll do. Whatever you need to do you have my permission to do. If it’s slice and dice or cut or put in anything, you have my permission to do it.
“I said, ‘I’m putting myself in your hands. I’ll fight as hard as I can, and I know you will. And that’s the last I remember for two weeks’.”
Olive recalls the medical staff ringing in the early morning to inform her her husband urgently needed to be put on a ventilator. She remembers them stressing to Dave the necessity to be honest with his wife about the seriousness of the situation.
“He said to me ‘they’re going to put me asleep, and there’s no guarantee I’ll wake up’. And I said ‘you will, don’t be worrying about it’. And the doctor standing beside him said, ‘no, no - we cannot give you a guarantee’.”
That clarity and directness from the staff at St James’s was to become a hallmark of her communication with Dave’s medical team over the next fortnight. There was no sugarcoating of the seriousness of his illness, and how they were unsure if he would pull through.
Initially, Olive admits, she did not “realise that a ventilator was a life support machine. I hadn’t connected the two together.
“The nurses were amazing - even if I rang at 4 o’clock in the morning. They were just so honest. They were saying ‘I can’t tell you if he’s going to come out of this, but what I can tell you is he is comfortable and he’s very sick’.
“Until 11.23 on April 23 - until that point, they could not tell me that it wasn’t going to be the end. They could not have been more honest.”
The turning point for Dave came after he had been on the ventilator for over two weeks. At this point the doctors were considering removing it - but their first attempt had failed as he was too weak. The next step for Dave would have been a tracheostomy to help him breathe, which they were planning two days later.
“With Covid, it comes to a point where it doesn’t do any good any more being on a ventilator. The blood isn’t taking the oxygen into it,” said Olive, taking up the story of that Thursday morning.
“I’d a missed call, and I really thought it was curtains. And I rang back and she said ‘This is a nurse in ICU, I’m looking after David today’, and I said ‘how is he?’ and she said ‘do you want to speak to him? I’ll ring you back on FaceTime’.
“My whole life changed, to be honest with you… and that was at 11.23 on April 23. And he… there’s no other way of putting it, he looked absolutely dreadful. His mouth was completely black where it was bruised. Sedation was a big issue around ventilation, and on the second day Dave pulled the tubes out because they hadn’t given him strong enough sedation. They reassure me now that that didn’t make a difference but it did probably delay a day or so.”
Dave spent another fortnight in hospital. Patients must receive two clear Covid-19 tests before they are allowed home, and the Kildare man says he ‘burst into floods of tears’ while on the phone to his wife when he finally received the news that he was out the other side and had beaten the disease.
Dave paid high tributes to the “really, really top class team in James’s, in the ICU. I’m talking way beyond and above what they get paid for.
“It was my birthday on April 26. I was off the ventilator at that stage.
“ When I woke up that morning, the staff had a packet of chocolate chip cookies with little hearts drawn on it and ‘Happy Birthday, Davey’, and a couple of gloves blown up with Happy Birthday on them.
On another occasion “there was a Solero bar smuggled in. I tell you, you’d have given fifty quid for it. It was massive!
“The staff in the ICU, I’d say their average age was 25, 26, and they were just absolutely amazing. I’m a manager in a hotel, so I wouldn’t be the easiest pleased person in the world, but these were just absolutely super. They couldn’t do enough.”
He praised the young staff who helped him FaceTime Olive. “Things like that are just massive. Especially when you’re just lying there, and you’re inside your own head and you’re trying to keep your sanity. It’s not easy because you don’t know whether you’re going to snuff it or whatever. But having said that, you have the inspiration of your friends, you have the inspiration and the love of your wife to keep you going, but at the same time, it isn’t easy trying to keep focused.”
Dave is full of praise for the support he received from those around him. Jerry Power, the general manager at Palmerstown House Estate, where Dave is the Manor House manager, rang Olive every second day to see how he was.
His golf pals from the Hayden’s Nines, based out of the Naas pub, sent texts. His good friends at Punchestown - where Dave has never missed a festival - lit candles and said prayers along with sending their well wishes.
“I had nearly 1,800 WhatsApps when I came off the 15 days on the ventilator. It will be next year before I finish answering them,” he said.
The experience of being on a Covid-19 ward is also very tough mentally on a patient.
“You see bodies going past you in the morning, it’s as simple as that. You see people being carried out, and it’s not nice. And obviously you feel sorry for every single person that’s passed. But at the same time - and every death is one death too many, and you feel other people’s pain - but you’ve got to try and stay focused on getting yourself right to try and help somebody else.”
Dave is now enrolled through Trinity College Dublin on a study which is investigating a treatment which involves injecting the platelets from recovered Covid-19 patients into the critically ill, which it is hoped will kick start their immune systems. He sees it as his way of helping others beat the disease. “Medical science is marvellous,” he said.
His return home from the hospital was a cause for celebration - even though he is facing a six-to-seven month recuperation period.
“My next door neighbours in Castle Village Way, they’re absolutely fabulous people, they had banners up for me yesterday when I came home. We’re not terribly long here, we’re just a couple of years here, but we just landed on our feet with the neighbours, they’re just super, and they were there, and the kids were clapping.
“The staff clapped as I went out of the hospital, and I turned around and clapped them back.”
The ICU staff made a point of searching him out on the recovery ward so they could say farewell. “Little things like that, they’re special, they’ll stay with me for the rest of my life. The concern and the honest good feeling and the good wishes that they have, and the smile on their faces that I was actually leaving the hospital. They do it make people better, and the few quid they get for it is a bonus. They’re top class people.”
Dave pictured with staff from St James's Hospital on his discharge day
Dave knows that he is lucky to be on the road to a full recovery - especially as he had spent so long in ICU on a ventilator.
Previously a healthy and active man, who enjoys walking and the outdoors life, he must now build himself back up. “I can eat as much butter as I want, I can drink as much full milk as I want, I can eat as much red meat as I want - I’ll be like a poisoned pup! At one stage I was looking around the corner to see was Kathryn Thomas going to be there for Operation Transformation,” he laughed.
“It’s going to be a long road, but at the same time, at least I have a roadmap. I have an idea of what to do and how to do it - and they make everything so clear. Any questions they have, ask and they’ll answer you. They won’t hide behind ‘maybe it’s this and maybe it’s that’. They just tell you exactly what they see, which is super’.
However, Olive says her husband is very different from the man of six weeks ago, noting he has lost between two and a half and three stone, and tires easily.
She is critical of those who believe that they won’t catch the virus.
“I was in the supermarket just before Dave came home, this guy was saying, ‘what’s the point in me standing behind the line? Sure I won’t get it’. Certainly Dave would be one of the healthiest people who said very clearly ‘sure I won’t get it’. I would have said I never would have got it, and I got it.
“It doesn’t choose who its victims are. It doesn’t have a boundary. So absolutely, people do not understand how dangerous it is and people do not understand that there is no cure for this disease. If there was a gunman running down the street with a firearm, people would lock their windows and doors. If there was a fire, with stuff coming in, people would lock their windows. They don’t seem to get that Covid is worse.
“This is a rampage that is going through every country unfortunately. And it is only when you live through it and walk in the shoes of Dave, who is the victim of it, and me who sat on the outside of it, in the middle of it... it is very difficult to hear that your husband might die. And that is as blunt as they are. They don’t cushion it, they don’t sugar coat it, never once when he was in ICU, they never once gave me any glimmer of hope that he wouldn’t die.
“And if people could hear that from the perspective of someone who has gone through what Dave went through, they might stay indoors, they might start washing their hands, they might wear masks or they might social distance. It just has such an impact on so many people. You don’t sleep, you don’t eat, you’re terrified to leave the phone out of your hand in case it rings. You’re terrified to make sure that it’s in coverage that it’s charged. When it does ring and it’s the hospital, your heart stops.
“Dave was asleep for it, so he didn’t realise how difficult it is, but for people on the outside it is horrendous. For people who have to go on a ventilator it is absolutely horrendous. And the only way to stop this virus from killing people, is to cocoon, stay indoors, wash your hands, to social distance and to just be more aware of how dangerous it can be.”
Dave is supportive of the government’s efforts to contain the spread of Covid-19 in Ireland, and he praises the authorities for listening to the professional advice of Department of Health Chief Medical Officer Tony Holohan. “I’m not political in any way, shape or form, and I don’t affiliate to a party or anything else, but I have to say, I think the government are doing a fabulous job,” he said.
One thing that is certainly in his future is a trip to next year’s Punchestown Festival. “Punchestown is an institution for me, I’ve never missed a day of the festival. I was born on a Monday and I was there as a day-old baby on the Tuesday. And I’ve never missed a day of it since, and hopefully I never will!”
He, too, is angry about some of the proposals that have been mooted in recent weeks to have people mingling in crowds again, and called a recent suggestion to resume GAA games with crowds in attendance as ‘absolutely stupid’.
“What you can do is you can test the players, even before they go out onto the pitch, and let them play it and let them have their match behind closed doors if they’re ok. But you’re not going to test 83,000 people going into Croke Park. And why would you bother putting the health of the nation at risk just for the sake of a GAA game? I know it’s our national sport but it’s when reality comes to kick you in the ass that you see the difference.
“People can stand and talk about, oh yeah, the Covid is terrible, but when you actually see it. When you see the effect that it has on a person. Or when you see a body going by you first thing in the morning, then you know what it’s like, then you know what Covid-19 really is. It’s not just a buzzword. It’s a dirty, killing disease that so far we can’t stop, but we can certainly slow it down.”
The couple's neighbours in Celbridge decorated the house for Dave's welcome home