Weekend Gold Coast Bulletin

He took one look at me and said ‘you’re going to ICU’

- KEITH WOODS REPORTS

When Kym Watkins jetted off on a trip to New York with a group of friends in March 2020, little did she know that within weeks she would be lying unconsciou­s in an intensive care bed at Gold Coast University Hospital, hooked up to a ventilator, fighting for her life.

Ms Watkins was one of the first Australian­s to contract Covid-19 at a time when the initial wave of the virus was beginning to take off worldwide.

Only days into what was meant to be a month-long trip with her husband Grant and a group of friends, Ms Watkins and her party were forced to abruptly return home.

Most people on that flight back to Australia were coughing. For Ms Watkins, it was the start of a harrowing few weeks which changed her life.

This is her story.

A FATEFUL TRIP

It was meant to be the trip of a lifetime, a hard-earned celebratio­n with friends after retiring from the Queensland Police Service. But in a stroke of rotten luck, Kym Watkins’ trip to New York coincided with an explosion of Covid-19 cases across the globe.

“When we headed off people were like ‘are you sure you really want to do it’, and we said, ‘yeah, that’s fine’, remember bird flu and all that stuff, it won’t go anywhere and we’ll be fine and we’d been in New York five days when things just went downhill really quick,” she said.

“We were supposed to be there for a month. We were supposed to do a Caribbean cruise with some friends from New Zealand. We arrived on the eleventh of March, the Wednesday, they started arriving on the Friday. They cancelled the cruise on the Friday.

“So we went out for dinner on Saturday night because it was a combined 60th, and we were like, why don’t we just go down to Miami for a few days.

But then the next day New Zealand’s Prime Minister decided that she was going to start having everyone do the isolation and I actually woke up on Sunday morning with a headache and a bit of a cough. I said to my husband, ‘I don’t feel very well’, but I’d had a fair bit to drink the night before so I didn’t know.

“He went off and had drinks with the group and when he came back he said ‘everybody’s going home’. And I said we’d better go home then, because New York was already starting to close down. The Saturday night, the bars, that was their last night of opening full hours. So we jumped on the internet and got a flight home.

“By the time I got home the cough was pretty bad and I feel absolutely dreadful that I got on that plane. But when I think back on it, it was a plane full of coughers. There was 90 per cent of people on that plane doing the same thing I think.

“We got home and got tested. That was on the 20th of March, and by the 25th I was in hospital in the infectious disease ward.”

TESTING POSITIVE

Ms Watkins said that despite her symptoms, her positive Covid-19 test still came as a shock.

“Grant and I went, ‘no way’. And they went, ‘yes, you’ve both tested positive’,” she said.

“Now he had a cough and a bit of a headache for a week. He was sitting beside me the whole time, 24-7 we were together.

“I didn’t realise it at the time but I’d started losing my taste. I had no interest in food and my temperatur­e was getting worse.”

Ms Watkins said that while she continued to play down her condition, her family soon became concerned.

“(Family members) said ‘she’s not getting any better. Even though I went, ‘nah, I don’t think I’m getting any worse’, but I really was getting worse.

“They said get up here (Gold Coast University Hospital), so I did.

“Little did I know then that could have been my last morning (at home).

“I said to my husband, ‘look they’ll probably just give me fluids and send me home. I still didn’t get that it was that bad.”

ARRIVING AT HOSPITAL

Ms Watkins was deteriorat­ing rapidly. The gravity of her situation became clear as soon as she arrived at Gold Coast University Hospital.

“(Arriving at A&E) I could barely walk, I stumbled along behind them,” she said.

“Every time I moved, I coughed, and that took everything from me. It just absolutely shattered me.

“I remember getting up and going to the toilet one morning, I sat down on the toilet and I thought, ‘I’m not going to be able to get out of here. I just didn’t have anything left. And that was an awful and scary feeling.

“So I hit the button (the call for help button in the bathroom). I got up and stumbled back to the bed. By the time I got back to the bed they were there.

“They took one look at me and got their big respirator­y doctor. He took one look at me and said ‘you’re going to ICU’.”

PUT ON A VENTILATOR

Ms Watkins was on a ventilator for three days as doctors battled to save her life.

“I got taken to ICU. I remember the doctor,” she said. “His name was Jack but don’t ask me what he looks like because they all looked like little Minions in their yellow and blue PPE. He said to me, ‘I’ve had 154 people in here and I haven’t lost one yet, I’m not going to lose you.’

“He said, ‘has anyone called your husband,’ and I said ‘no’, and he says, ‘well I’ll do that’.

“And then he said, ‘OK, put your head back’, and that’s the last thing I remember for three days.”

Doctors warned Ms Watkins’s distraught husband

Grant that they expected her to be ventilated for two weeks. But the former police officer, who exercises regularly, fought back quicker than expected.

“Three days later

I woke up,” she said. “They didn’t take me off the ventilator straight away but I remember when they did I couldn’t talk for a couple of days.”

Having quickly become seriously ill, Kym’s recovery was also rapid.

“They only kept me in ICU for two or three more days, but I was like, ‘I’m good now, I can go home’,” she said.

“I was sitting in there, going through my head all the things I was going to do when I got out of the hospital.

“I was getting bored, and when you get bored in hospital you know you’re getting better.”

CALLING HER FAMILY

For much of the time Ms Watkins was battling Covid-19 in hospital, she was unable to communicat­e with her loving family.

“I’ve got three boys and two stepsons and two sisters and a brother who were frantic,” she said.

“Everyone was in the dark, because no one could get hold of me on the phone, friend on Facebook, I just went dark all of a sudden and they didn’t know what was going on.”

After she was taken off ventilatio­n, they were finally able to speak again.

“My husband’s not a huge shower of emotion, but he said he cuddled up to the cat and cried most nights that I was in here,” she said.

“My boys, so protective of me, couldn’t even talk to me.

“The night I got to ring them (after coming off ventilatio­n), we were all on the phone in tears because they were so emotional, they were so worried they were going to lose me.

“Even my nieces and nephews. We’re a very close family and they were all the same, very emotional.”

LIFE AFTER Covid

While almost losing her life to Covid-19 was a shocking experience for Ms Watkins, having recovered, it allowed her find a new purpose in life.

Forced to retire from the police service after turning 60, she had wondered what she would do next. She now had her answer.

“I spoke to a nursing assistant when I was in the infectious diseases ward. She was a lovely girl,” she said.

“Because I’d retired from the police I was bored, I needed to do something, I didn’t have a million dollars to retire with.

“I’m 62 now so to a degree as an RN (registered nurse) I think would be a little too long, but an AIN (Assistant in Nursing), they’re always looking for them.

“So I went on the TAFE website and found a course that would qualify me as an AIN because I really felt inspired by every nurse, AIN, cleaner, everybody who was involved in my care. Every day they came to work with the same compassion and smile on their face. You could tell from their eyes – you couldn’t see their smile but you could tell from their eyes. Even though a lot of them had a lot going on in their lives. I went, ‘oh my God, how do you keep going’ and they went, ‘we just do’. And they did. And they treated me like I was the only one that they had to put up with.

“They were all amazing. All absolutely amazing.”

GIVING BACK

In a remarkable twist to her story, Ms Watkins is not only working at the same hospital where doctors and nurses saved her life, but in the hospital’s busy vaccinatio­n centre, where thousands of Gold Coasters receive the life-saving injections each week.

“I never thought that I would get back in here,” she said.

“I had to go through the applicatio­n process the same as anybody else, it wasn’t anything special.

“But I am so, so grateful and so thrilled to be here.

“They say there’s three things you need when you retire, or get into old age. One is you need that purpose to get out of bed every morning. One is that social network. And one is your exercise.

“Well I have that exercise thing covered, but the social network, which I so missed when I left the police, and that purpose to get out of bed every morning, this job has given me these.

“And that purpose is something that’s very close to my heart.”

TAKING THE VACCINE

A year on from her near-death experience, Ms Watkins is delighted to have received the AstraZenec­a vaccine. She said that while she found the vaccine had mild side effects, they paled in comparison to what she experience­d as a Covid-19 patient.

“I had the AstraZenec­a,” she said. “I had it on the Wednesday and on Thursday I got up to go to work. I was working at the time for a cleaning company in community care. I cleaned this house for two hours and when I finished I was so tired and my hands were achy and my head was achey. By the time I got to the next job I was in tears. And I thought, ‘I don’t know what’s wrong with me.’ Then I was like, ‘Dopey – you had the vaccine yesterday.’

“But then I went home, took some Panadol, went to sleep, woke up and I was fine. It doesn’t happen like that with Covid. You don’t get to go to sleep. Panadol’s not going to help it. It’s something you’re going to have to get through with help from doctors.”

TELLING HER STORY

Having almost lost her life to the condition, it shocks Ms Watkins to see people doubting its seriousnes­s, or questionin­g the need to wear face masks or get vaccinated.

The scepticism is what has prompted her to tell her story.

“It makes me mad when there are people who say ‘it’s against my civil right to wear a mask’, well, what about everybody else’s civil rights? Do the right thing. If everybody did the right thing we wouldn’t be in this mess.

“I know that my family never object to it because they know what I went through. They nearly lost me.

“I don’t tell my story for sympathy, so everyone will go ‘oh my goodness’. I tell my story because I want people to realise how dangerous this is, how much it affects us. And they don’t realise that unless they know someone (who has become unwell from Covid).

“It is as bad as they say. I know I talk a lot and people probably think, she just wants sympathy, well I don’t. I just want it to be known that it is very, very real, it has affected us in a huge way. I hope that our kids never have to go through anything like this again.”

My husband's not a huge show-er of emotion, but he said he cuddled up to the cat and cried most nights that I was in here Covid survivor Kym Watkins

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 ??  ?? Former police officer Kym Watkins is now working as a nurse’s assistant after surviving Covid. (Top right) Leaving hospital last April after being the first Queensland­er to be put on a ventilator due to the virus, and (right) waving to the media from her balcony at home. Main picture Glenn Hampson
Former police officer Kym Watkins is now working as a nurse’s assistant after surviving Covid. (Top right) Leaving hospital last April after being the first Queensland­er to be put on a ventilator due to the virus, and (right) waving to the media from her balcony at home. Main picture Glenn Hampson

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