From the file

A year of Covid | We’ve all been affected by the pandemic, but few as severely as Geoff Woolf, the father of reporter Nicky Woolf. This is the story of his 306 days in hospital – and beyond.

A year of Covid

Changed: My dad and the virus

Changed: My dad and the virus

Last March, Geoff Woolf went into hospital. He returned home 306 days later


transcript

Nicky, speaking to his dad, Geoff: Okay, so you want to wheel yourself to where you’re comfy and we can sit? Show me how slowly the number one setting moves. 

Nicky, narrating: That’s me, Nicky. And I’m talking to my dad, Geoff. 

Nicky, speaking to his dad: Oh, that’s good. That’s great. 

Nicky, narrating: We’re sat in his living room in his home in north London. In the background, you can hear Tsonka – she’s dad’s care coordinator. We call her the colonel. She’s currently living in the spare room while dad settles in.

Nicky, speaking to his dad, Geoff: Right, ready to go.

Geoff Woolf: Now? 

Nicky, narrating: Only a couple of days before this recording, on 21 January 2021, Dad had come home from hospital – 306 days after being admitted with Covid.

Geoff Woolf: Paddy. I gave you a silly response to your request…

Nicky: Right now, I’m helping dad draft an email to Paddy O’Connell. He’s the presenter of Broadcasting House, Radio 4’s Sunday magazine show. He interviewed Dad soon after he came home. 

Geoff Woolf: Elizabeth Bennet…

Nicky: And he asked him about Pride and Prejudice. So the email he’s drafting is about Elizabeth Bennet – yes, that Elizabeth Bennet. Pride and Prejudice became a motif for us over the course of a hellish, rollercoaster of a year.

Geoff Woolf: The response should be to her first request to marry him from Mr. Darcy, stop. 

Nicky: Dad hasn’t always spoken like this. Before he was taken, last March, in an ambulance to the Whittington hospital in North London, he spoke more than fluently. 

Geoff Woolf, my dad, inherited his love of words from his own father and passed them on to us – his three sons. Our earliest memories are of him reading stories to us at night, or tracing the letters with his hand as he taught us to read for ourselves. We grew up in a house full of books, and we all read voraciously. Family holidays entailed hauling a library’s worth of extra luggage. 

Dad would regularly recite Shakespeare from memory, or fetched the well-thumbed Complete Works to retrieve a particular quote. Friday night dinners were lively with readings, as we competed to dig out the right line from Robert Frost, Virginia Woolf or Kurt Vonnegut, Sylvia Plath or e.e. Cummings. Or Jane Austen.

Then, 2020 happened. It feels almost dreamlike to try and think back to those early days of the pandemic, now. How we thought. How we behaved. How innocent we were. How naive.

This is a story with a hopeful ending. Dad is back with us. He’s talking about Jane Austen again. 

But it bears thinking about how we got here.

[Archive news report: The outbreak began in December in the central city of Wuhan, home to more than 11 million people. Chinese health officials insist the situation is in hand….]

Nicky: Cast your mind back to the middle of January last year. 41 patients in a hospital in the city of Wuhan, in Hubei Province in central China, are sick with what’s been confirmed as a novel strain of coronavirus.

On 20 January, it claims its first victim.

[Archive news report: In central China, a man has died following an outbreak of an unknown pneumonia-like virus, which officials say comes from the same family as the deadly SARS virus….]

Nicky: By 22 January, six of those infected – that’s one in ten – have died.

[Archive news report: …and China’s new coronavirus is spreading. The US has confirmed its first case….]

Nicky: But it remained low in the news agenda, partly because Trump’s first impeachment trial is reaching a crescendo in the US Senate. I was covering the trial, so I wasn’t paying attention to the news from China. It still felt distant and unimportant when, on 31 January, the virus officially reached the UK. 

[Archive news report: Unwelcome but expected. It’s inside this hospital in Newcastle where two patients from the same family are now in isolation and are being treated by specialist NHS staff….]

Nicky: In the months that follow, we all become intimately familiar with the grim calculus of survival that living during a pandemic requires.

In late January, researchers finally begin to raise the alarm: that this variant of coronavirus appears to be much, much more dangerous than at first thought. The World Health Organization declared a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern” on 30 January. 

[Archive news report: Two months since Covid-19 spread out of Wuhan, Italy is silent and, as the number of cases continue to rise past 100, the north of this country is on lockdown….]

Nicky: By March, it is beginning to dawn on us that this is going to be a real thing. People have started panic-buying toilet paper, for one thing. By the time Prime Minister Boris Johnson issues an advisory against non-essential social contact, and hints that a lockdown is coming, I’m paying attention….

[Boris Johnson press conference: There is more that we need you to do now. So, second….]

Nicky: Still, the night before lockdown is dropped, I decide to go with a friend for one last pub trip. 

I’ve obsessed over that night in my head a thousand times. I didn’t properly calculate the risk. But, then, nobody seemed to be taking it particularly seriously. If the danger was imminent, why was lockdown on a time delay? What happened in Italy couldn’t really happen here, could it? Still, the thought still haunts me. Was what was about to happen my fault?

The next day, UK coronavirus deaths pass 100. Princess Beatrice cancels her Buckingham Palace wedding. Glastonbury is cancelled, too. The dam breaks. The ceiling collapses. The flood finally penetrates our daily lives. It’s in every nook, every freedom. It laps around our feet. There is little we can do but build a small raft of face coverings and anti-bacterial spray. We bob around barely afloat in the ruins of our comfort.

Dad is 73, but he’s fit and healthy and active. He goes to the gym three times a week. In his whole career as a solicitor, he barely missed a single day’s work from illness. But on 21 March, he starts to get sick.

By the following morning, he is so fatigued he can barely move. I find him face-down on the breakfast table, an uneaten bowl of muesli and blueberries beside his head. By early evening, his temperature has started to climb. I call 999 and get an automated message.

Eventually, when we get through, they tell us to wait. Dad is shaking and shivering now. He doesn’t appear to have difficulty breathing. But he’s also become an unreliable narrator. He just wants to go back to bed, he’s just tired. He tells me he’s checked his temperature with a thermometer, but he hasn’t. I can’t tell if he’s drinking water or just telling me he is so I’d leave him alone.

I call the NHS hotline back. They put in the call for the ambulance just after nine. Dad goes to the bathroom again, and is in there for more than half an hour. He seems scared, too. That shakes me more than anything else so far. 

The ambulance arrives at 10:38. They do some preliminary tests, but will need to take dad to the hospital. My last few moments at home with dad are spent frantically searching for a phone charger. They take him into the ambulance. Then they drive away.

The hospital calls at around midnight. I am sitting in the dark, chain-smoking. By the time dad arrived, his temperature was above 40. They don’t know what it is yet, but they’re treating him with antivirals and antibiotics to be on the safe side. The doctor’s name is Rachel. She says she’ll call back in an hour with an update. She calls back at 1am. The tests were inconclusive.

The next day, dad messages the family group. He seems in good spirits. “The hospital is being very thorough,” he says. “Chest X-ray. Brain scan. Bloods. Urine. I think they’re practising on me.”

I can’t get the ward to pick up the phone, though. “Are you in Mary Seacole North?” I message dad. “Yes, I think it is Mary Seacole,” dad replies five minutes later. “I don’t know the point of the compass.”

They still haven’t answered the phone. “You don’t have a compass in that bag of yours?” I message.

There are no conclusive results that day. But dad is still messaging, which must be a good sign. The doctors seem to be implying that they’re just waiting for the results of the test before he can go home. His temperature is still up and down, though, which isn’t great.

Dad’s nephew is on the family WhatsApp. He’s a consultant cardiologist at a teaching hospital in Hertfordshire, and has now been pulled off to help with their coronavirus response. At his hospital, he says, “We are keeping patients in until fever settles, but as things become more desperate patients will go home with paracetamol.” He sounds scared too. 

I get a call from the hospital around 3. They say he had a comfortable night, but still no results back from the tests. 

There is another around half 7 that evening. Dad’s temperature is spiking. They might need to put him on oxygen.

The next day it’s announced that retired doctors are being called in to help with the pandemic. When I call, the ward have trouble tracking dad down. I finally get through to a rushed-sounding ward sister, who at first gives me the details for a patient named Jan. Eventually, she tells me dad is now on a ventilator. It’s unclear if she means full mechanical ventilation or just oxygen support. The Covid test has still not been processed. 

Dad is now on CPAP – oxygen assistance – which isn’t full mechanical ventilation but is still bad news. His O2 requirement seems to have peaked, though; down to 40 percent in the afternoon, from 60 initially. 

I don’t sleep that night, so I miss the next morning’s hospital call. My youngest brother Sam calls and speaks to dad’s nurse, but she says she’s swamped. When I call at noon, it is engaged. I keep trying. When I get through 45 minutes later, they say dad has just been taken to intensive care.

The world turns into numbers after that. Cases, deaths, days, weeks, oxygen percentage, oxygen pressure. The one we are all trying to gauge: likelihood of survival. I am the point of contact for the hospital as I am down as next of kin. I am updating the family – mum, my two brothers and dad’s sister Carrol.

Between us we will be on the receiving end of dozens of “we aren’t hopeful” chats. The only thing to do is aim for facts alone, or the hope-despair cycle is too much to bear. But it has to be shared with someone.

I am spending my nights obsessively reading just-published papers out of Wuhan.  I spend hours cataloging case fatality rates. A treatment called “ECMO” gives the best chances of survival, but there are barely a dozen ECMO machines in the country. Dad’s new ICU doctor, Freddie, calls me that afternoon to tell me dad is sedated and comfortable, and that they’ve been able to bring his oxygen mix down to 75 per cent from max. Max is bad. 

The test was inconclusive, he says, but they are treating it now on the assumption that it is Covid-19 – a disease that had barely registered in my mind just weeks earlier. At this point, the treatment is the same either way. 

Another doctor calls me the next afternoon, starting a routine that would go on for the next three months. It’s now too risky to do a CT scan, because it would mean unhooking him from the machine and wheeling him across the hospital. They’ve been able to reduce the oxygen a little bit more, but now his kidneys are failing. 

There is a lot of information, and I have barely slept. Is he still on the same antibiotic? I forget to ask, trying to take notes in email drafts as the doctor talks. She sounds hopeful, I think, that dad is going to be okay. But, she says, he will need to be sedated and on a ventilator for a bit – maybe as long as a week. 

He will be on a ventilator 67 days. He will be in intensive care 127 days. He will be hospitalised for 306 days in total – one of the longest Covid hospitalisations in the country. When he comes home, he will have aphasia, a cruel condition which means, while he can think clearly, he struggles to put those thoughts into words. He will be in a wheelchair, paralysed down one side.

Sam Woolf: It’s interesting trying to put one’s mind back. There’s so much that we know now that we didn’t know then. I don’t think I was immediately worried for his life….

Nicky: This is Sam, my youngest brother.

Sam Woolf: OK, testing one, two, three four, five…

Nicky, speaking to Sam: Ok. Hold on. Hold on. Do us a test.  

Sam: Voila! In view, a humble vaudevillian veteran, cast vicariously as both victim and villain by the vicissitudes of fate. This visage…

Nicky, narrating: He, as you might be able to tell, is an actor.

Nicky, speaking to Sam: So take us back to that first day when we realised something was up with dad.

Sam: I was at home and had just gone into lockdown a few days ago with me and my flatmate, Joe. And it was all a bit…. there was still a sense at the beginning of that, that I think a lot of people felt that no one quite likes talking about, is that there is excitement when something huge like that is happening. There’s worry as well, but you kind of go: oh, wow, well, you know, stuff’s happening in the world. This is a bit different. There’s a bit of energising… not quite frisson, but, you know….

Nicky: It’s exciting. 

Sam: It’s exciting. Something different is happening. And we didn’t know how deadly this thing was. It still felt like a thing that was very far away. And the fact that dad was feeling ill… I still, none of us thought that it was the virus that strongly. We wanted to be really sure, which is why we delayed going to hospital, because we were worried that, going to hospital, he might get it. And he was always a very stoic guy with illness as well. And just kept saying he was tired, he’ll sleep it off.

It wasn’t an acute feeling… it was the anxious neutrality of, okay, something’s happening, I guess we just have to wait and see. And then that just steadily got worse.

Nicky: And tell us about those days… I remember them as just interminable, like everyday the same. For me it narrowed down because I was the one getting those hospital calls. But what was that like for you, waiting on the updates? 

Sam: Hmm. I have written on my mirror – still, because I haven’t taken it off – the sentence: I can handle it, whatever happens, I will handle it. And you look at it and, in looking at it, it becomes true a little.

Maybe having a cry, maybe having a glass of wine, maybe having a cigarette, but not… you know, fundamentally holding my shit together because you had to. There’s nowhere to go. There’s nowhere to rage. There’s no space to externalise what’s happening. You’ve got the four walls. You’ve got your once-a-day exercise. There’s nothing to do but experience the thing that is happening and try not to experience the future at the same time, because the present is enough.

Nicky, narrating: Ventilation – mechanical ventilation – is really, really awful. 

[Archive news report: For this hardest hit by coronavirus, a ventilator can be the only hope. “My husband would have died without a ventilator….”]

Nicky: A tube is shoved down your windpipe. In order to not reject it, dad’s been placed in an induced coma.

[Archive news report: Putting someone on a ventilator is not like flicking a switch and turning on your car. Intubating somebody is a high-risk scenario where you’re taking over their breathing from their body….]

Nicky: The hospital allows us to video call in, through some arcane NHS system. Dad has been “proned,” which means placed on his front, something they’re finding helps with Covid patients. It means the ventilation tube cuts into the corner of his mouth. When we video in, we can see the dried blood. He doesn’t look good. It’s scary. The hospital are putting pictures of the patients before they were intubated by the beds, just so the doctors can see the people they’re treating the way they were, before… before they looked like this.

We were worried dad would be bored, deep down there in the darkness under all those tubes. It was Sam who came up with the idea of sending dad an MP3 player to listen to audiobooks on. 

Sam Woolf: And he said, if I’m ever ill, if I’m ever in a long hospital stay, this will be the book I want to read because it’s so comforting me, Pride and Prejudice, it’s so comforting. And that stuck with me. I liked that about him because he was often a serious, quite a serious man… not that he wasn’t lighthearted, but, you know, he doesn’t suffer fools gladly, and I at 16 was often foolish. So it was nice to see that side of him. That Jane Austen would be his comfort. This kind of powerful, intellectual lawyer person, focused on the accuracy of language and the specificity of thought, and he loves Austen. That’s nice. It was a nice facet to his personality.

And we wanted to be able to have this in his ear while he was unconscious, knowing that we would never know if he would be able to hear it or not, but it was some kind of communication. It was some kind of connecting branch between us and the unconscious body with so many tubes that you can’t see the person. But if we can be reading to him… and there’s a bit of a parent-child reversal there, in some ways. We were read to a lot by him as a kid, and here’s a chance to read to him, and maybe he can come back a bit.

[Archive radio programme: Broadcasting House (Radio 4). Presenter, Paddy O’Connell: But first we meet two brothers, who sent audiobooks to their father who is on a ventilator and now want this scheme to expand. Geoff Woolf is 73….]

Nicky: Dad’s doctors who told us that all their other patients wanted one, too; and thanks to the kindness of Audible, who donated a whole bunch of devices, Sam and I set up a project we called Books for Dad. We’re now in dozens of hospitals across the UK, and moving into more each week.

[Archive radio programme: Broadcasting House (Radio 4). Nicky: One of the most tragic things about this whole disease is that families of patients, you can’t go visit your loved one in hospital. So loneliness and boredom and fear is a real problem. So when we asked his doctors if we could get him audiobooks to listen to, his doctors said universally that would be actually great for all our patients. Loneliness is such a problem and it’s such a long recovery from the disease….]

By 9 May, dad’s oxygen stats have finally returned to something like normal, and he is taken off the intensive mechanical ventilation. I get the first good news in a really, really long time that day, when a nurse calls me to tell me he has opened his eyes.

But that’s basically all he does. His infection markers are dropping, but he isn’t returning to consciousness. On a CT scan, the hospital has seen the signs of a massive stroke event in the brain.

When you want to test consciousness at the basic medical level, you do a little pinprick to the finger. Even low levels of consciousness can respond to pain. But dad doesn’t flinch. The sedation has, by this point, been lifted and has processed out of his system. His eyes have opened, but there is no evidence of consciousness itself.

He’s not moving. When a light is shone into his eyes, they react; the iris opens up, the pupils dilate. But he is not tracking. His milky, blue-grey eyes are fixed, wide and staring straight ahead as if at an unseen terror.

Dad’s oxygen requirement, our metric that anchors the hope-despair cycle each day, has been coming down day by day. That’s the ironic thing: he finally seems to have beaten the disease. He no longer has Covid. They have been able to fit a tracheostomy, that’s a hole straight into his windpipe, so the ventilator tube is no longer forced through his vocal chords. 

I tell the family group: “The neurologists want to meet with us to discuss next steps.”

Sam: Something I’ve forgotten is that we had been pretty positive – maybe positive’s not quite the right word – but we, for some reason, had the impression things were starting to get a bit better because oxygen levels were improving and had been a bit from the previous week. At one point they were really, really dire. I mean, when an ICU unit is telling you that your relative is the patient they’re most worried about….

Nicky: The meeting-room is bleak. The window opens only to a three-inch crack, the air is too still and too hot. We sit, masks on, six feet apart, in a wide circle. The neurologist’s scrubs are black, and he is calm and patrician. He tells us that the damage to dad’s brain is too great. That his body is there, breathing, but it is a shell. The thing that lived in it – dad – is gone.

Sam: I remember thinking this is coming as a surprise because I thought things were getting better. And then you had: “He’s already gone.” That was the takeaway. That was the main sentence that stuck with me. You need to anchor onto something in those moments; your body’s in overdrive, is shaking, is struggling to hear…. family members tend to not to take in that much information when doctors are giving that kind of news. So I latched on to: he’s already gone. Which is pretty unequivocal. And then went and started to say goodbye. And started to grieve from that moment. 

Nicky: One by one, we’re allowed into dad’s room to say our goodbyes. Sam, when he goes in, reads him  ‘Do not go gentle…’ by Dylan Thomas. 

Dad’s friend Larry, with whom he hitchhiked across Canada in the 1970s, sends him a farewell recording. When it’s my turn to go in, I open the email, hold the phone to dad’s ear, and hit play. 

Larry, in his recording: Hello, Geoff. I’m just writing to send you a message of support and love, and here it is: [‘The Logical Song’ begins playing, and continues in the background…]

Nicky: When I play him this, I feel like something breaks a little inside me. It was like a sudden bridging of the gap in time gives me a glimpse of dad at my age, even younger, tan and fit, traveling the world. Thinking about thinking.

I am an insomniac. I feel my mind works like dad’s does. And suddenly, when I hear the song – his favourite – and imagine how he heard it too, I feel closer to him than I ever have before. 

And then, like a terrible weight, the sadness hit, as I realise I will never be able to share that moment with him. Like dad, I never cry. But I do now, uncontrollable, wracking sobs. The unfamiliar, salty taste of tears.

That night, I listen to the song over and over and over.

There is a decision to be made. Now we have to choose a time to turn off the life support. If we hold on, if they keep weaning him off the ventilator in this condition, we could end up in the scenario where we are keeping his body alive medically, but losing the option of him peacefully slipping away. If his body can breathe on its own… there’s no euthanasia in this country, so we’d have to withdraw nutrition over a period of months. And we couldn’t even start to do that until he’s been in a vegetative state for six months. He wouldn’t have wanted that.

Sam: And he didn’t want to fade away, he wouldn’t have wanted to fade away. He hasn’t been conscious of what’s going on. Those are the positives you hang on to….

Nicky, narrating: Gotta say, the others are dealing with this better than I am.

Sam: You didn’t accept so much the reality of what was happening, I think. 

Nicky, speaking to Sam: I was in denial 

Sam: Yeah. And mom and I spoke about… that that was happening, and I remember you saying that night, “I’m not ready to give up yet.” And I thought, well, what we’re ready for isn’t… the world doesn’t care about what we’re ready for. You can’t fight existence, can’t fight reality.

But, at the same time, I tried to hang on to positives of… the fact that you weren’t accepting, because, you know, if there is hope, maybe I can feel it through you a little bit. 

Nicky, narrating: I am spiralling. I am in the hospital every day. I am refusing to accept what they are saying, refusing to believe the light has gone from dad’s eyes. The doctors are adamant, but I am pleading. Just one more test. “He can’t just be gone,” I think. “He can’t have come this far, fought this hard, for nothing. He must still be in there. He must be.” I am in denial.

Outside the walls of the hospital, Covid numbers are falling. London is opening up. But we are trapped in our private nightmare.

Nicky, speaking to Sam: I mean, maybe it was partly how much I – and sort of  still do, which is obviously not hugely psychologically healthy – about how much I was blaming myself for it. You know, I was living at home. When he got it, I still think it almost certainly would have been through me….

Sam: You’ll never know. You’ll never know, 

Nicky: I’ll never know, but that was on my mind. You know, there was like a last… I mean, they brought in that delayed lockdown; the night before it, I went, like a lot of people did, for one last pint because that was essentially what the government was implying people should do. And I don’t think I’ll ever shake from myself the idea that that’s where he… that’s where it came in.

Nicky, narrating: I grasp at every straw. One day, a nurse tells me she thought dad responded to one of the pin-prick tests, just a little. The other medical staff said that was unlikely, but I latch on to it. Sat at his bedside – dad is out of the Covid part of the ICU now, and, having let us in to say goodbye, the doctors seem to feel they can’t stop us coming in now – I am searching for any sort of sign. On 30 May, I swear I saw dad twitch his eyebrow.

One inconsistency obsesses me in particular. The EEG, the brain scan, found low activity everywhere – brain-death. But the stroke was just on the left side of his brain. Surely the scans would have hemispheric differences. Maybe the test is wrong. It is a desperate play for time. If the limbo, the time when dad is sick, never ends, then he can never die.

Sam and mum have a quiet conversation outside out of earshot. “Nicky is bouncing around the early stages of grief,” he says. “He’s fighting it. There’s nothing to fight. Already gone,” they said.

But the hospital, more out of kindness than hope, agrees to humour me with another test. It shows slightly more brain activity than the last.

Then, slowly, dad begins to wake up.

Nicky, speaking Geoff: Let’s do the more serious interview part of this. So just going back, what do you remember from before? Do you remember anything from before?

Geoff: I don’t remember the story of my getting sick and from then on I have no recollection until I woke up in hospital 

Nicky, narrating: Dad had been in an induced coma for almost the whole span of the pandemic. When he regained consciousness, he couldn’t really speak: I scrawled conversation trees on a clipboard for him to point at. “I would like to know about: medical stuff; the family; the world.” Dad tapped on each one in turn.

Nicky, speaking to Geoff: What’s it been like slowly coming to learn, once you’ve started reading the newspapers and stuff, realising how much of a global  catastrophe you’ve been part of?

Geoff: I don’t feel as though I was part of that. What happened to me is so personal.

Nicky: In July, dad was finally discharged from the Whittington Hospital and sent to the Royal Hospital for Neuro-disability in Putney to continue his treatment.

Geoff: And to my surprise, they all showed up to clap me and cheer me on my departure. That was a big surprise.

Nicky: What he’s saying there is hard to make out, but he’s describing how all the staff at the Whittington turned out to clap and cheer when he was discharged.

[Audio clip: The staff of the Whittington applauding Geoff.]

Nicky: This was a huge moment – not just for us, it turned out, but for the country. He had become emblematic of hope. Strangers who had lost loved ones to the disease or had family in hospital still sent emotional emails telling me their stories. 

The messages of support made me feel guilty, sometimes. People were going through hell. Dad had been discharged – but wasn’t home yet. He was on his way to a neurological hospital to try and recover from the devastating wreckage of the disease. He was paralysed; he couldn’t speak. What everyone else saw as a triumph, we knew as the beginning of a long and difficult road.

Nicky, speaking to Sam: Yeah, I don’t know. I don’t know if he’d have chosen this.

Sam: No, I mean I don’t know. But I think it’s important to voice those thoughts, at the same time while knowing they don’t change anything. I think so often we’re worried about saying stuff like: is this, was this, the right decision? Because, of course, it’s the thing that’s happening now, and we will make the best for him for whatever there is now. But it’s okay to have them. We all have them. And I certainly find to say it out loud, feel it a bit, and then go, okay, well, that’s done with for a bit…. 

Did we make the right choice? You say that, and you can have a wail. But there are no right choices. There is just this, just the thing that’s happening. And there’s no other way things could have ever happened. We took examined choices. As best we could. All choices are made without sufficient data. You just do your best.

Nicky, narrating: Dad’s time at the neurological hospital was worse, in a way. He was conscious – we could speak to him on the phone, his voice was slowly coming along – but we had been able to see him in the summer. Just after he woke up, the doctors kindly let us keep coming in.


In Putney, we couldn’t see him. I saw him just twice in six months. Worse, he was bored. For neurological recovery, human contact and conversation is crucial – but the hospital was strictly locked down. Understable; there’s a lot of very vulnerable people in there. But dad was depressed, frustrated at his lack of progress – and lonely. It was awful.

Meanwhile, we were sprinting to get everything ready for his return. Putney gave us a discharge date – 21 January, ten months to the day since he had been rushed off in the ambulance. Everything at home had to be torn out and rebuilt. The yard at dad’s house had to be taken up and levelled for wheelchair access. Door lintels had to be lowered. 

Dad would not be able to climb the stairs at home – he may never be able to walk again at all – so we partitioned the living room to give him a bedroom area on the ground floor, and built a disabled bathroom.

Over the holidays, the builders worked tirelessly, but it was still a close-run thing. Work on the inside of the house was finished at 10pm the night before he came back.

It was a magical day. Dad had one request for when he came out: a plate of steak and chips, which I duly cooked. And I nailed it, by the way. Just to have him there, to eat with him, to chat about our days – these are the things you never realise how much you will miss until they are gone.

[Archive radio programme: Broadcasting House, Radio 4:] 

Presenter Paddy O’Connell: Finally, with your permission, Nicky, if I could talk to Geoff? 

Nicky: Okay, here he is.

Paddy O’Connell: Thank you. 

Geoff: Hello again.

Paddy O’Connell: Hello, Geoff. Welcome back.

Geoff: Thank you.

Paddy O’Connell: It’s a miracle, really, this story of yours. Do you remember hearing Pride and Prejudice? Do you think that Elizabeth Bennet was right to reject Mr Darcy’s first proposal? 

Geoff: Blatantly, otherwise the second half of the book would never have been written!

Nicky, narrating: This isn’t a clean story. This wasn’t a fight, nor was it a victory. Life will be very different now. 

Nicky, speaking to his dad: What recovery… what does the recovery process ahead look like? 

Geoff: I’ve no idea.

Nicky, narrating: But dad is back. And he’s writing that letter to Paddy we heard him drafting earlier – a longer answer to his question about Elizabeth Bennet in the interview. We know we’re incredibly lucky for that.

The families of the more than two million this disease has killed don’t get to have that. Covid has changed not just dad, not just our family, but humanity as a whole. We will, none of us, ever be the same again.

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