Fr Pádraig Ó Cochláin
“Is ait an mac an saol” is an old Irish saying, meaning that life is strange. I was released from hospital recently and am now on the road to recovery from Covid-19, a mysterious virus which seems to have originated in China, in late 2019. Many people by now have been affected in various ways even to the point death. I was saddened to hear of the death of a dear friend, Liam Hayden, during my illness. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam uasal!
I am lucky to be stationed in Arklow, Co Wicklow in the parish of St Mary and Peter and St David’s, Johnstown. The parish took all its duties seriously in relation to the dangers posed by Covid-19. Copious supplies of hand-gel, separate entrances and exits, one-way systems, enlisting a large number of volunteer stewards to oversee safety for our people, new signage, large quantities of personal protective equipment, were all put in place. The two-metre separation requirement meant an 80% reduction in capacity at Masses and people remained in their seats for the reception of Holy Communion.
In early February 2021 I was not feeling well and attended my local GP but I had none of the typical symptoms of Covid-19. I was not overly weak or affected until mid-February. I was scheduled for a funeral Mass on Monday February 15 but was not well and Fr David Brough, my fellow priest kindly looked after the celebration while I retired to bed. Little did I know that Fr David himself was also unwell.
On February 17 I rose at my usual time and had my breakfast. After lunch I again felt weak and retired to bed. In the afternoon, I was awoken by some commotion outside the house and heard that there was an ambulance at my door. I rolled out of the bed and on to the floor intending to get to the window or to get down the stairs and open the door. When I got to the floor I could not move. I had zero energy. I did not want the ambulance to go away and I tried to shout out that I was inside but unable to let them in. By the grace of God, Anne, a keyholder of the house was passing and opened the door to allow them access. My oxygen levels were alarmingly low. I was immediately hooked up to oxygen and taken to St Vincent’s Hospital but there was no room at the inn. There were a few vacant beds in St James’ Hospital Covid ICU so, by the grace of God, I was transferred there to be treated.
I was placed under sedation on a ventilator while the medical teams fought to save my life. I spent the next six weeks in Intensive Care. I cannot thank the medical staff enough for all their hard work, for their genuine care, their extreme patience, and their pleasant demeanour at all times. We hear of problems in the health service, but all I can say is that the consultants, the doctors, the nurses, assistants, student nurses, cleaners, physiotherapists, occupational therapists and all concerned, from all corners of Ireland and indeed the globe, are worthy of our gratitude and of a decent wage commensurate with their vital role in caring for the sick. They are without doubt heroes and heroines. One day a nurse passing by engaged in conversation with me and asked what I would like. All I could see was a Coke with ice and lemon, a simple thing which up to now I had taken so much for granted.
On Holy Thursday, the feast day of priests, early in April, I was released into a general ward and out of ICU. I was still dependent on oxygen and a nasal feeding tube. I received my medication and hydration through a tube and was not allowed to swallow food or liquids in case of infection. How I looked with longing on the other patients who were eating real food and drinking real drink. I remember a dietitian in ICU passing by and offering me a drink of water. I gratefully accepted the offer. She placed a small teaspoon in a glass of water and placed it in my parched mouth. I cried “Water! Jesus thank you for the gift of water!” Five drops was all I was permitted in case I had lost the ability to swallow. From then on all liquids fed through my mouth needed the addition of a thickener. I had lost much of my muscular power, especially my mobility. I feared I might not be able to walk again, to breathe without oxygen, to celebrate Mass in public, or to enjoy a quiet game of golf. During my two-weeks in the general ward I commenced physiotherapy and was gradually re-introduced to real food.
St James’ Hospital had fulfilled admirably their role in my treatment. It was time to return to St Vincent’s. But my stay there was short-lived. What I needed now was rehabilitation and physiotherapy. I was transferred to St Michael’s in Dún Laoghaire for their dedicated two-week post-Covid programme.
Once again, I received the very best of treatment. I arrived there with my nasal gastro tube still in place, with an oxygen tube in my nose, and barely able to walk with the aid of a frame. Within a few days the physiotherapists progressed me from walking the corridors with the frame hooked up to oxygen to the removal of the nasal feeding tube, the removal of the oxygen tube, and finally the removal of the walking frame. I had to survive on my own two feet! They finally helped me climb and descend sets of stairs. I was ready for discharge. The Irish health system had cared for me in a very satisfactory manner, saving and re-building my life. I am eternally grateful to all who cared for me with kindness, compassion and professionalism. I am forever indebted to you. The nurse, based in ICU who had heard of my yearning for Coke with ice and lemon showed up the day before I was discharged from St James at my bedside a few hours before my transfer to St Vincent’s and producing a beaker of Coke with ice apologised for not being able to find any lemon. It was one of the sweetest gestures I ever experienced – someone who really cared!
All the while my family, though initially shocked, rallied around me proving the dictum “Blood is thicker than water”. They were unable to visit due to restrictions but when I needed them they were always there. Family is so important when we hit the rocks. My dear mother prayed the rosary and the divine mercy chaplet daily for my recovery and lived for the day of my release. My family set up a Zoom prayer meeting weekly, which I only discovered late in the day. When I got my phone operating after several weeks I was very touched to connect with them live and to join in prayer. It was a special and spiritual moment bringing a tear to my eye.
My wider family in the Church was not idle either. I know that many parishioners were concerned about my health. Candles were lit. Prayers and Masses were prayed. Novenas and get-well cards were sent, convents of religious sisters were enlisted in prayer, and people all over Ireland and indeed the world joined in supplication on my behalf. Legionaries of Mary worldwide opened up their batteries of prayer. How could the Lord and his Blessed Mother not listen? I am indebted to all those whose prayers and support lifted me up. And listen they did. I have survived to tell the tale.