This is the personal account of Sobha Sharma-Kandel, superintendent pharmacist of Neem Tree Health Ltd – sharing her worries and fears when she and her family all contracted Covid-19.

Having Covid-19 was a physically, emotionally and psychologically draining experience. It is one that I will remember for a long time.

My story starts in the weeks preceding the lockdown. Pharmacies were already under immense pressure, with an increased volume of dispensing, panic-buying by patients, and on top of all that, dealing with stock shortages and organising home deliveries.

I particularly remember being on duty over a weekend, and dealing with an electronic prescription received via the London Ambulance service for an antibiotic. The patient was a suspected Covid-19 patient and I was shocked that the patient had come in to collect the prescription himself. Government guidelines said that patients displaying Covid-19 symptoms should not be coming into the pharmacy, and we had made this clear by putting the relevant NHS posters on our door and windows. While counselling the patient, I explained that he should have asked someone else to collect the medicine on his behalf or he could have called us for a home delivery, but his English was limited.

'I am still concerned by the lack of effective PPE available'

We have had lots of patients displaying Covid-19-like symptoms coming into the pharmacy for advice and our phone lines have been non-stop busy. GPs stopped face to face appointments after lockdown and are doing over the phone consults. Patients have been coming to us as a first port of call. The pharmacy profession is very vulnerable to being exposed to this deadly virus. Already there have been deaths of two community pharmacists, a community pharmacy technician and a hospital pharmacist.

Keeping the risks in mind, I organised adequate supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE) for my staff, as the supplies sent by the NHS was not enough for us or adequate. I am still concerned by the lack of effective PPE available, and it does seem as if pharmacists have been overlooked even though we are frontline key workers. As a pharmacy owner, I also made sure that I fully did my best to protect my staff by installing a hatch in one of my pharmacies; in the others we installed a plexiglass screen. We also implemented strict social distancing measures in the pharmacies. We have also been strict with our hand hygiene, as well as cleaning and disinfection of the pharmacy. We modified our hours to cope with the workload at this time as per NHS guidance.

This was a challenging time, as some of our staff had started to self-isolate and we were under immense pressure already. At home, we were also practicing social distancing, hand hygiene and disinfection. My mother is over 70 and an asthma/COPD patient, so I was particularly worried about her. I was even considering moving out for a few weeks, but she didn’t agree. I was strict in putting my work clothes in the wash every day, having a shower, and then sleeping separately from my family, as well as maintaining social distance from them at home.

Our symptoms emerged

Unfortunately, I started displaying some symptoms of Covid-19 one week into lockdown. I believe I must have caught the virus at work. My first symptoms were chest pain and breathlessness, so in the beginning I thought it was just exhaustion, as I had been working a lot of the preceding weeks. I went into A&E to get assessed. After a blood test, chest X-ray and ECG everything was deemed normal apart from viral markers in my blood which were raised, indicating that I had a viral infection. I asked for a Covid-19 test, but that was not available as my symptoms were not severe.

The next day, 30 March, my husband started having a fever and gastrointestinal symptoms. He called NHS 111 for advice and they advised self-isolation for the family for 14 days. Then, my mother started having a fever and body pain, and my son developed a fever. This was quite a scary time for me, as one by one three family members were succumbing to symptoms of Covid-19. I was not feeling that well either. All three members of my family with symptoms self-isolated in their own bedrooms. I made sure that they were having paracetamol on time, with adequate hydration and nutrition - very important even if appetite is reduced.

Thankfully, a few days later, my husband, mum and son were fever free. However, I started getting a fever and cough, anosmia, body aches, itchy eyes, sinusitis, headache, nausea, in addition to the chest pain and breathlessness that I was still experiencing. I now went into self-isolation. Luckily, as my husband and mum had been recovering well, they were able to look after me now, and my son had fully recovered at this point.

I organised a Covid-19 test for myself and my husband through our local trust, which was for NHS workers only, and on 5 April we both had the self swab test done. I was very anxious about the result over the next few days. The news on the TV was all about deaths rather than recoveries. My breathlessness was also affecting me a lot and making me more anxious. Some friends who work in the NHS advised breathing exercises and to sleep in the proning position (on my front) to relieve pressure on my lungs. I did steam inhalation with Vicks, which did really help my symptoms, and was also regularly taking hot lemon and manuka honey drink, as well as paracetamol. I was eating and drinking healthy food - lots of soups, fruits and vegetables. To help boost my immunity, I used high strength vitamin c, zinc, vitamin D and probiotics.

'There were times I was getting vivid dreams, with thoughts of death and finalising my will'

I tried to keep my mind off everything by distracting myself - watching movies, talking to friends and family via video chat and social media. Writing also was therapeutic for me. There were times I was getting vivid dreams, with thoughts of death and finalising my will. I was emotional, thinking how my mum, husband and four children would cope if anything happened to me. Prayer and meditation helped me get through this challenging time.

The swab results came back positive for both my husband and I. On one hand there was relief, as now we knew why we were suffering so much, and hopefully we would have some kind of immunity to it now. On the other hand, I felt panic, as it is a serious condition and not to be taken lightly. I was the only one left with symptoms, and in isolation at this point and thoughts of not pulling through were frequent.

My main fear was that between days seven to 10 some patients can deteriorate and have to be hospitalised. However, after speaking to the doctor, I realised I had already passed that stage as my non-specific symptoms had started earlier.

After a week of bedrest, I finally started feeling a bit better, although I was still very weak with post viral fatigue. I still had some slight wheezing at night for a while and I re-tested for Covid-19 and had a negative swab. Now I feel back to myself finally.

Last weekend after three weeks off, I finally started work back on the frontline.

My advice to others

The advice I would like to give to fellow pharmacy professionals and pharmacy staff is to protect yourselves at all times. Keep practising hand hygiene, wear adequate PPE, maintain strict social distancing in the pharmacy, keep your immune system healthy by adequate sleep, hydration, nutrition, taking vitamin supplements to boost immunity.

Keep your mental health in check by speaking about your fears and emotions with friends, family and colleagues. Reduce watching the national media if it is making you anxious. Please remember that most people do make a full recovery from Covid-19.

I am grateful that my family and I have survived this ordeal.

I have been speaking to many colleagues who have also made a swift recovery. Keep positive and stay safe. As healthcare professionals, it is our duty to serve our community at this unprecedented time, but we need to also look after ourselves and our health to be able to give the best to our profession.