Mar 20

Things I Wish I’d Known Before My Wife Got Presumed Coronavirus

FT8 comments • 7,576 views

For the last 12 days I’ve been nursing my wife Isabel through presumed COVID-19. She’s starting to feel better now, or I wouldn’t be writing this. 

I’m aware the official advice is to isolate symptomatic patients within a household. In practice, obviously, this is heartbreakingly hard to do when someone you love is suffering. (It’s also the case that not everyone has a big enough home for cordon sanitaires to be feasible) 

I was ill shortly before Isabel, with similar, though much milder, symptoms, and recovered quickly – so I made a judgement call that my risk was low and I could look after her. 

That said, don’t do what I did if you can avoid it: follow the official advice if you possibly can, and whatever you do, don’t jeopardise your health or the health of friends, family or strangers.

This piece isn’t meant as a list of advice or a prediction of what a Coronavirus case will be like for you. I’m not going to offer medical advice or play armchair epidemiologist. Every patient is different and most will have mild or no symptoms. My wife is 44, and has long-term Chronic Fatigue Syndrome but no underlying respiratory, heart, etc. conditions, which surely played a part in the specific course of her illness.

But some of you might be in a similar situation to me, maybe very soon. So here’s what I wish I’d known 12 days ago.

IT’S PROBABLY THE VIRUS: If you get any symptoms you think are Covid-19, assume that’s what you’ve got. While Isabel was obviously not well and was following the (then) 7-days quarantine advice, we both thought it wasn’t really Coronavirus. It seemed hugely unlikely we’d be among the first few thousand UK cases, given we hadn’t had any contact with anyone infected. Then on day 4 my son’s school suddenly shut as a parent and pupil were confirmed with C19, and we realised – duh – that “probably not” was actually “probably”.

THE UNCERTAINTY IS AWFUL: On the other hand, because testing is so limited in the UK, we still don’t know if she has it, and we might never know for certain. This is a hard thing to deal with when you are very ill – what if this horrible thing you’re suffering with isn’t the horrible thing you’re scared of? It took me until Day 8 to start telling people that what Isabel had was presumably Covid-19.

IT CAN LAST FOR AGES: Onto what I didn’t expect (or hadn’t been prepared for) symptoms wise. The main thing was the sheer length of it – though again, in my own case it was over very rapidly. Isabel wasn’t so lucky. Fevers are nasty, but this was a fever that ground on for days without really breaking or spiking. The duration of C19 seems to be one of the unusual things about it – in Isabel’s case it peaked around day 8 (the worst of the fever), then again on day 10 (the worst of the breathing issues, which luckily were still mild). Apparently for hospitalised survivors in Wuhan the median release day was Day 24. Be prepared for a long haul.

IT EBBS AND FLOWS: This is something I really wish I’d been expecting – for Isabel, C19 didn’t follow a predictable pattern of worsening, peaking and recovery. There was a period of initial but manageable illness, then a rapid decline into being entirely bedridden, then two separate peaks of illness with improvements in between, and only now a sustained recovery. It took her until Day 11 to say “I’m feeling a bit better”, and as an observer there were clear rallies and declines along the way, which made everything particularly nerve-racking: you never quite know if things have improved, and declines are especially frightening.

THE BEST-KNOWN SYMPTOMS MIGHT NOT BE THE WORST: If you’re like me, when you think of Coronavirus you think fever, dry cough and changes in breathing, which are the signature symptoms. Isabel had all of those, but for her the worst effects were exhaustion, nausea, aches and dehydration. She was weakened by it to a degree I’ve never seen outside very old and ailing relatives, well beyond any flu either of us have had. She needed a constant supply of painkillers and water (which she was often too weak to actually lift to her lips) and had zero appetite. In a non-pandemic – or if she was on her own – she would definitely have been in hospital. As it was, fortunately her breathing was never bad enough to need that.

THINGS YOU MIGHT NEED: Not everyone’s illness will be as severe or as long as Isabel’s was, and in the grand scheme of things we were lucky – she’s improving and not in a hospital bed. But if you think you might be a Covid Carer in the near future, I’d recommend trying to sort out the following:

  • Painkillers (she found paracetamol+codeine to be the most effective – soluble is great as that ups your water intake too).
  • A supply of clean water (duh)
  • A plastic urinal bottle (if you’re that exhausted, you can’t get up to go)
  • Playlists or audiobooks pre-loaded for carers to put on (Isabel didn’t care about this, but this is me thinking of what I’d need!)
  • A lot of pillows (being elevated makes drinking easier).

Isabel lost track of time completely but I found it really helpful to have some kind of routine – in my case posting silly pop polls on Twitter! – and obviously it was so good to keep in touch with friends on social media and WhatsApp.

It’s a bastard of an illness. I really hope you don’t get it badly if you get it at all. Thanks and love to my friends for their support, to my kids for coping amazingly well, and to Isabel for being such a fighter.


  1. 1
    marius on 26 Mar 2020 #

    too long, far too long

  2. 2
    Dave on 26 Mar 2020 #

    thanks for the post Tom. Obviously wonderful to hear recovery is happening, and really good of you to share the experience in a way that is stratightforward and realistic but not depressing. Good luck to you and the family

  3. 3
    Richard on 26 Mar 2020 #

    Thanks for posting! There is very little in the way of an “expected” timeline of symptoms of a Homebound patient. Lots of epidemiology and transmission data, but no practical day-to-day. It leaves one feeling lost and overwhelmed. Good luck with your recovery!

  4. 4
    Reg Baker on 26 Mar 2020 #

    Thanks, Tom. So glad she is feeling better.

  5. 5
    Richard Young on 26 Mar 2020 #

    Thanks Tom – so good to have a rational and practical take.

  6. 6
    Coagulopath on 28 Mar 2020 #

    Glad to hear that your family’s going ok. The fatality rate for folk in that age bracket is very low (<0.4% or something, most of whom probably have something else going on like hypertension) but it's still guaranteed to be a miserable and frightening time.

  7. 7
    James Adlam on 28 Mar 2020 #

    Long-term reader of your site, have never commented before. Thanks so much for this post, really valuable. In these times of crisis when we are overwhelmed by both information and misinformation, I appreciate your ability to cut through to what really matters.

  8. 8
    Jan on 1 Apr 2020 #

    Good luck to you and your family and keep your hopes up!

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