By Doy Sison-Jones
It all started with a get-together in the 1,500 metre-high Swiss alpine resort of Verbier. Perhaps it started even before then; I will never know. My closest friends and I from here, there, and everywhere were assembling for an extended ski weekend to celebrate long friendships, longevity and to enjoy some skiing and fondue.
Covid-19 had already begun to make major news in Europe. Lockdowns had not come into effect in European cities, but alarm bells had already sounded in Italy. Verbier is not far from the Italian and French borders and the Milanese (whose city is located barely three and a half hours’ drive to Verbier) are known to spend long weekends in the resort, skiing and enjoying all the social activities involved in the sport.
For the non-skiers, this not only involves a lot of obvious physical exertion in quite challenging terrain. There is a large amount of apès-ski skiing partying and drinking, plus fondue dinners in restaurants extending to watching live bands and DJs in nightclubs. It is a very social activity in a very social ski resort.
Verbier party scene: poor information, no social distancing and packed bars
At this time, there was only one confirmed reported case in Sion involving a family 54.5 km away. Aside from that there was nothing officially announced in the area. I was closely watching reported developments. Then during the long weekend of 14-15 March 2020 as resorts were being order to shut down, there were rumours of a case in Le Chable, a town just below Verbier, and perhaps a chalet with friends of Swedish friends who had returned to London. I knew none of them personally and certainly no one with a confirmed case. No official statements, no warnings from the tourism office, so not much concern.
In 20/20 hindsight, that was extremely naive. I guess you rely on authorities to inform you of the goings-on but it was only during the actual weekend of 15-16 March that the Swiss Confederation began to impose the maximum 50-person rule. It also ordered the immediate closure of all ski resorts and restaurants. This was for the whole of Switzerland, and not just Verbier. So this story starts here.
That weekend was an extremely joyous affair. Seeing old friends, going to packed restaurants and bars, all in a very busy town. Then we said our goodbyes, having had a wonderful time together. People piled into trains, planes and automobiles back to where they had come from.
The virus becomes apparent amongst a group of us
Then the fevers set in with night sweats, the loss of smell and taste; all followed by extreme fatigue. These are the classic symptoms. Suffering my asthma, I used my inhaler and just plodded on. I rested but took short walks in the fresh air alone, and ate healthily but without tasting a thing. At this point, my other weekend friends began to exhibit the same symptoms. This included those in our get-together and even those whom I had only seen in various restaurants in the resort, and not involved in our social activities.
It was a physical struggle, but I wasn’t too alarmed. I’m quite a fit person and this was a two-week self-imposed isolation with a bit of discomfort, a variation of the flu. Then one day I woke up and could hardly breathe. The inhaler wasn’t helping. I felt my windpipe contract. I really struggled, feeling as if I was slowly being choked. The strangest non-asthmatic sounds were coming out of my lungs. I began to feel that dread that I had felt when I had my pulmonary oedema, my bout with MRSA, ectopic pregnancy and burst appendix. It’s quite a strange feeling, knowing that something is terribly wrong and I recognised it.
It had all begun with a cough. A small, annoying cough, shallow and dry. As an asthma sufferer, I just assumed that it would naturally involve some sinus issues, a few inhaler puffs, and a few uncomfortable days. Another mistake. I completely underestimated the effect of Covid-19 on an asthmatic. Plus I’ve had other issues: high altitude pulmonary oedema which I had caught while trekking to Everest basecamp in Nepal, plus decades of smoking Marlboros.
My friends immediately stepped in to help
Fortunately, I have great wonderful friends in the resort. I called Annabel, Sophie, Kato, friends within running distance. Annabel and Mark quickly took me to the medical centre in town. They had also exhibited some symptoms, but had already self-isolated and were thankfully unafraid of the disease because of immunity. I eventually saw the doctor in full gear. He examined my blood pressure, oxygen saturation and breathing. He then immediately directed me to a hospital in Martigny, the nearest main town in the Rhone Valley, to have my lungs examined. Annabel and Mark drove me.
I arrived at the hospital to be greeted by members of the Swiss Army, who would not let anyone into the clinic area without prior appointment. I struggled into the reception area, armed with my EEC health card and passport on my phone. There were a few forms to fill in coupled with phone calls from my doctor in Verbier, plus some language struggles. But I was finally admitted into Emergency.
Emergency rooms in the time of Covid-19 are even more stressful because of the sheer numbers needing attention. Obviously the staff are aware of how infectious the disease is. They immediately put you into a section separated by a plastic curtain. Covid-19 tests were given immediately; a most uncomfortable nasal experience, but not painful. Then there are the tubes and drips plus all sorts of devices connected to you. I could go into more detail here but it’s not for the faint hearted.
People crying in distress, gasping for air or screaming
While you are lying in wait for the main doctors, you are constantly listening to people who are obviously in great difficulty, either gasping for air, crying in distress, or screaming while they struggle to deal with their predicament. As a forced observer, you need to harness your mental and emotional strength to deal with all this. One also feels quite helpless.
This went on for hours. I cried non-stop and wondered how the medical staff could cope with all this on a continuous basis. It’s also a very lonely experience. No one not affected is allowed into the Covid-19 areas; no family, no friends. Thank heavens for text messages. My family and friends helped me cope in real time.
After a while I was no longer in distress, I was breathing a bit laboriously but not with extreme difficulty, so I was low on the list of requiring immediate attention. This meant waiting the whole day in the emergency room. One thing you learn as an asthmatic is that panic is your enemy. You need to concentrate on regulating your breathing and keeping yourself calm.
Also, experience from being at very high altitude for weeks teaches you to try not to hyperventilate and to do yoga breathing. Experience is also helpful. If I hadn’t experienced my breathing difficulties before, I would have perhaps gone into full panic with the resulting distress. After a few hours, they x-rayed my lungs and found pneumonia in both of them. Now I could be wheeled upstairs into an interim, isolated area to wait for my Covid19 test results. That would take another 24 hours.
Highly attentive medical teams: the unsung heroes
The medical staff were amazing. Every hour, they checked in on me, changing gowns, masks, gloves, etc and making sure the oxygen levels were fine, checking blood pressure. I wondered about the effectiveness of their gear. I didn’t think those masks were adequate at all, having to intubate people and being coughed on continuously.
By the next day, the medical teams had already run out of kit. They were reusing gowns and keeping the same masks. I felt for them, knowing that it would just be a matter of time before they got infected with the virus. But they were all very cheerful, very helpful, and very kind. Such unsung heroes. They’ll have so much work the next few months. You can just hope they keep their health, applaud their efforts and try to help in any way.
After the first night, I finally got my results. I was moved into a Covid-19-only floor (there were three of them). My roommate was on oxygen, a local woman who spoke only French. Thank God for Google translate! We comforted each other, tried to have conversation and smiled a lot at each other. I believe she thought I cleaned for a living. It was too difficult to explain otherwise and there was nothing wrong with that anyway.
We laughed nervously. When you aren’t allowed to see anyone in the hospital, you turn to each other for support. The continuous emails and texts from friends were extremely helpful. You feel you have the emotional support of your family and friends, without them being there.
Being fit – and having done Everest Base Camp – helps
We kept each other company for two days and I asked the doctors if I could leave. They obviously needed beds. I was doing OK even with the pneumonia, or what they kept calling Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome, or ARDS (fitness, people, helps a lot). The doctors said ‘yes’, I could go. Annabel picked me up from outside the hospital. The army had to escort me out since she wasn’t allowed in. It was like being on Everest again. Step, breathe, rest. A struggle to get to the car but I was homebound. What a relief. I was very grateful I was leaving and in an OK state. I was lucky.
Upon returning home friends rallied. Even close acquaintances texted with offers of help. I received groceries, home-made food, meds all left on my doorstep. Friends waved and conversed from the garden. How wonderful people are, generous with their time, supportive, putting themselves at my disposal at all times. They left their phones on at night, in case I needed their help. It was and is, extremely touching. A very special thanks to the Mark and Annabel, Sophie and Luca, Tomas and Kato.
I’m on the slow road to recovery now. I still haven’t seen anyone, afraid to shed and spread this virus everywhere. It’s been 17 days from Day One of the symptoms and probably Day 20/21 from the time I got infected. A big thank you to the medical community for their courage and help. Big hugs to my family and friends who make me very grateful to know that they are part of my life.
Please self isolate, keep exercising, and eat healthily.
By Doy Sison-Jones
Doy Sison-Jones is a Harvard-educated former investment banker now working as a jewllery manufacturer and designer. Based in London, she is also an avid trekker and hiked up to Everest Base Camp in Nepal despite her asthmatic condition. Doy has her own adventure blog.
This article was first published by Global Geneva.