“He’s gone,” the doctors told us, gently.
Geoff Woolf—my dad—had been taken by ambulance to Whittington Hospital in north London with COVID-19 in March, at the beginning of the very first wave of the disease in the United Kingdom. He was placed on a ventilator a couple of days later. By the time the neurologists called us in to “discuss next steps”—their euphemism for switching off life support—Dad’s oxygen levels had finally stabilized after 67 brutal days of mechanical ventilation.
But two weeks after sedation was lifted, he had not returned to consciousness from the coma they had induced so that he wouldn’t reject the ventilation tube shoved down his windpipe. His doctors believed he now never would.
I remembered a song my dad had used to sing me to sleep at night. He had terrible pitch, really, but imbued the words with such meaning. “There was a boy, a very strange, enchanted boy …” I sang that song back to him, through tears that threatened to break into sobs, standing there with my two brothers, saying goodbye. “The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love, and be loved in return.”
Then, miraculously, though with agonizing slowness, he started to wake up. Eventually, 306 days after he was first admitted to the hospital—last week, as I write this—he came back home.
On March 21, when Dad first said he didn’t feel well, it was still easy to think of the pandemic as something that was happening elsewhere, to other people. The British government had imposed a lockdown a few days earlier—but the announcement had come with a time delay, which made it feel considerably less urgent than it should have felt.
Like many others, I went out to the pub the night before lockdown came into force. It all seemed like a lark at the time, in a way that feels strange even to remember. Although experts and hospitals were sounding the alarm, warning that they might soon be overwhelmed, that the danger was clear and present, I had—a lot of us had, I suppose, back in the before times—a feeling of invincibility with which it is now impossible to empathize. That pub trip will haunt me for the rest of my life.
The next day, Dad woke up exhausted, and complaining of stomach trouble. He didn’t have a fever, though, and his symptoms didn’t seem like those that people on TV were describing. He spent most of the day in bed, and the rest on the toilet. The following morning, I found him facedown at the breakfast table. Seeing him there, I felt the first spike of real fear—a fear that would stay with me for months.
By early evening, Dad’s temperature was climbing. I called 999 (the U.K.’s equivalent of 911) and got an automated message instead of an emergency-services operator. That really shook me. When I finally got through to an operator, she told me there was “a wait” on ambulances. Hours passed before paramedics finally arrived to take Dad to the hospital.
I remember obsessing, when the ambulance came, about the need to pack his “useful bag.” Dad never goes anywhere without his useful bag. I put a clementine and a pack of blueberries in it, and rushed around in a panic because I couldn’t find his phone charger. The paramedics were kind. “He’ll be fine,” one of them said. Then they lifted Dad into the ambulance and closed the door. It sat there, doors closed, for about 10 more minutes. I stress-smoked a cigarette. Then, at 11 p.m. on the dot, they drove away.
When Dad first caught COVID-19, his chance of survival was statistically decent—somewhere between 90 and 99 percent, from what I could figure out during the hours I spent in the dark, obsessively reading research papers. When he was admitted to the hospital, those odds roughly dropped by a third. When he was placed on oxygen support, they halved again. By the time he was rushed into the ICU in acute respiratory distress and intubated for mechanical ventilation, his odds of surviving dropped below 10 percent. The longer he was ventilated, the further they decreased.
I was locked down, alone, in Dad’s now-empty house. The darkened window of his bedroom haunted me. A catastrophic insomniac to start with, I allowed myself to become completely unmoored from the day-night cycle. I developed rituals: I pressed my lips to a childhood teddy bear for luck before going to bed each night. We have a framed telegram sent by my grandfather to my grandmother when he got back from Dunkirk, a family treasure I began touching every time I passed it, like a religious relic.
At some point each day, the hospital call would come, and I would relay it to my family on WhatsApp. O² up. O² down. Creatinine up. Creatinine down. Drink. Smoke. Rinse. Repeat. Soon, I was on first-name terms with all the doctors. Cheerful, optimistic Freddie. Lucy, more in the glass-half-empty category.
Dad’s cardiologist nephew, who was in the family WhatsApp group, told us that hospitals didn’t have enough protective equipment, not even enough basic supplies. Nurses were resorting to wearing garbage bags. “Watford ran out of oxygen today,” he said at one point, almost offhandedly. That stuck in my mind.
I was searching for something to do, anything that would make me feel less powerless. The hospital had a care-staff wish list on Amazon; I went down it and bought one of everything. Instant noodles. Nutri-Grain protein bars. Chocolates. Tea bags. Phone chargers. The hospital even asked, horrifyingly, for antiseptic wipes. I ordered some of those too.
I was going through this alone, but I was hardly alone in that. My family’s experience of this pandemic has been, I guess, starker than many others’, but, to some degree or another, everyone (anti-lockdown trolls and conspiracy theorists notwithstanding) has gone through the same rude transition from innocence to experience. Everywhere, as governments fumbled with lockdowns, people’s worlds shrank to their four walls. Time became meaningless for all of us.
For a few stiflingly hot weeks at Whittington in the height of summer, before Dad was transferred to a special neurological hospital with stricter rules on visitation, we were able to go in and see him. He was still unable to speak, so I drew conversation boxes on scrap paper. “I want to know about: hospital stuff; family stuff; the world.”
To us, Dad’s return to life seemed miraculous. To him, it seemed like a curse. As far as he was concerned, he had gone to sleep healthy—recently retired, a regular at the gym, studying for an art-history degree, a sociable lover of travel—and woken up profoundly disabled. He would come home, after 306 days in the hospital, in a wheelchair. The brain damage caused by the coronavirus has paralyzed his right side and left him with aphasia, which restricts his ability to speak, a particularly cruel outcome for a man whose love of language and literature is so core to his being.
The most bizarre part has been explaining everything that happened during the year he missed—not just to him, but to all of us. He woke up changed, and will have to get used to a different life. But he woke up in a changed world, too.
The generation that lived through World War II was marked by the war’s effects forever. In the U.K., that meant rationing, and schoolchildren sent away from their parents to escape German bombs. For others, such as my grandfather, who survived by hiding from the Nazis in Romania, it meant far worse. The war left lasting marks of trauma across society, not just on discrete individuals. Many of us have grandparents who habitually, even now, never throw things away. Living through rationing made them thrifty for the rest of their life.
I have heard the dismissive joke: how that generation fought its war with rifles and tanks and bombs and blood, and how we have fought ours with snacks on the sofa and Tiger King on Netflix. But the coronavirus has already killed more than twice as many people in the U.K. as were killed by German bombers during the Blitz. In the United States, the virus has killed more Americans than the number who died in all of the 20th century’s wars combined. As I write this, more Americans are dying every day of COVID-19 than the number who died on 9/11, and they have been for weeks on end.
Those are just the direct effects: There is still scant data about the pandemic’s more intangible and indirect consequences. The mental-health effects of mass loneliness and isolation are yet to be uncovered. Domestic-abuse victims have been locked inside with their abusers. The scale of this catastrophe is yet to be fully understood.
What will this shared trauma do to all of us? Maybe there will be a wild swing the other way: an era of near-nihilistic partying, the way the abandonment of the Roaring ’20s followed the First World War and the 1918 flu. Or maybe we will always wince at touching. Can we ever go back to hugging and shaking hands? Will we ever truly be comfortable again in large crowds, or in packed rooms? I’m not sure I will.
Dad did not “beat” COVID-19. It devastated him, as it has devastated all of us. He will never be the same, and neither will we. But we know how lucky we are. More than 2 million families around the world—and counting—haven’t been so fortunate. We have him back. Or at least, as he himself put it in a melancholic moment at the hospital earlier in his recovery, “halfway back.”
Of course, things won’t go back to the way they were. But once all this is done, and the dust has settled, we can begin to think about how to go forward. There is, perhaps, hope in that.