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22 July 2020updated 31 May 2024 5:38pm

My near-death experience on a Covid-19 ward

Six days after I was supposed to die, I went home – and though I had only been gone a week, everything had changed.

By John Burnside

Looking back, I see that I should have paid more attention to the bats. I had been watching them for hours: elegant, fleet creatures flitting around the sickroom, where I sat in my favourite chair, self-isolating, waiting for the virus to pass. This was my original mistake, of course: the assumption that I must be suffering from Covid-19. Though it made sense from one angle, it was still an assumption, a self-fulfilling diagnosis based on a mix of anecdote and magical thinking.

Still, it seemed reasonable enough, at the time. I was fighting for breath, any physical activity was an effort, I had been suffering for weeks from a dry, nagging cough and, though these could have been symptoms of anything – from a common cold, to bronchitis, to the unforeseen combination of “co-morbidities” that, over the next several days, almost killed me – I had resolved upon coronavirus. Self-diagnosis, followed by self-medication: as with so many men my age, this seemed infinitely preferable to seeing a doctor.

In fact, I had considered calling my GP, but that would have led straight to A&E and, as everybody knows, more people get sick in hospital than they would have done had they stayed at home. Besides, what could a hospital do for me? There was no vaccine, and no treatment other than rest and rehydration. If things got significantly worse, I told myself, I could call the hotline. In the meantime, the idea of self-isolation felt not only appropriate, but also, in a perverse way, aesthetically pleasing – like the idea of sanctuary, or monastic contemplation. If I stayed comfortable and warm at home, I would probably come through fine; if I didn’t, I at least had my own books and music to hand. After all, who can forget George Herbert’s epigram: “The apothecary’s mortar spoils the luter’s music.”

Luckily, my wife disagreed. Breaking into my “quarantine”, she found a grey-faced spectre, gasping for every breath, and in a thoroughly confused state. (I was told later that the build-up of carbon dioxide in my blood was the reason, not only for my bat hallucinations, but also for the sequence of bad decisions that had brought me to this point.) I can be pig-headed, especially in adversity, and for a while she had tried to see my point of view. Now, however, as I drifted ever further from reality, she picked up the phone.

Within an hour, the ambulance had brought me to A&E and, because I was in such a bad way, I was quickly whisked into the “Red Zone”, which is to say, to the Covid-19 side of the building. From here on in, there was no going back.

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I had entered a parallel world, with its own arcane procedures, a super-sanitised limbo where everything was muffled and several degrees removed, as though under water. For the next six days, I would meet any number of people, but none of them would have faces and their voices would be stifled and distant. Later, it would come as a surprise that I got used to this so quickly; on that first day, however, it was decidedly eerie and, given my mental state, intensely cinematic. As soon as I arrived, the staff gathered around me and, as they poked and prodded and adjusted my oxygen supply, they looked like curious, oversized insects in their masks and visors: bees, say, or ants. (This never changed, even when I got the Covid all-clear: in all my time at the hospital, I never saw the people who in effect saved my life; all I saw was a series of PPE exoskeletons and, except for their first names, all I knew about them was the sound of their muffled voices.)

On the front line: workers at the intensive care unit of a London hospital, June 2020. Credit: Jack Hill/The Times/News Licensing

If the medical staff were ants, however, the Red Zone exposed me as another form of insect life altogether. My family had been nagging me for years about my weight, but I refused to acknowledge it was a problem, right up until that definitive moment, when three nurses rolled me from the gurney on to a bed and I saw myself, from the outside, as a damp, larval mass; a fat, overblown grub. That came as a shock, though it shouldn’t have done. I had “let myself go” over the years, my time divided between my desk and various forms of transport, my diet an ad hoc, pro tem mix of cheese sandwiches, stale vol-au-vents and official dinners.

After admission, my memories of the first night are confused. Everyone was talking at once. One of the ants was trying to get me to blow into a device that looked like a breathalyser, others were already fitting me with a drip of some kind, while a tiny, Tinker Bell-like creature floated around the periphery of my vision, waiting to insert what I soon realised was a catheter. This all seemed to be happening in a makeshift theatre of managed chaos, like a scene from Casualty or an alien abduction movie. Then, just as suddenly, it was quiet. I may have drifted briefly into unconsciousness, but I can’t be certain; all I can say is that, at one cold and very still moment, I rose vaguely to the surface, caught my breath and listened. No one was there. Apparently, I had been abandoned.

By now, the bats were everywhere; though, admittedly, this was far less troubling than it sounds. A survivor of the Seventies, I remain highly tolerant of hallucinations, even those on the grislier side. These bats weren’t grisly at all, however; they were just haunting and oddly poignant, as they fluttered against the walls, searching for an exit. For one dizzy moment, I thought that, with a concerted effort, I could lift myself out of bed and follow them; but then I saw that, in spite of their best efforts, they weren’t going anywhere.

There was no exit; or not, at least, anything that could be seen from where I was lying, no longer a larval mass, just an overweight, utterly extenuated human male in late middle age. Of course, I couldn’t see the entire room because, like Gulliver in Lilliput, I was pinned down by an elaborate system of tubes and wiring. The ants might have abandoned me, but they had tethered my body to a variety of monitors and drips and bleeping instruments, and I was still being fed oxygen through a large, clear face mask – which suggested that, at some point, somebody would turn up, to do whatever remained to be done.

For the time being, however, I was alone and the sealed room was quiet. It was a veritable study in solipsism: I existed, I was sentient, but nothing else was certain. Finally, I closed my eyes, deliberately this time, and with something close to grim satisfaction, like Lazarus, I departed.


There is no time in the Red Zone, so I am only guessing when I assume that it must have been around then that the doctor telephoned my wife, to say that the problem wasn’t Covid-19 at all, but a huge heart failure, combined with a severe lung infection. He solicited her agreement that, if I continued on my present path, they would not attempt CPR or put me on a ventilator. (Apparently, my particular combination of co-morbidities – which is to say, the simultaneous presence of two or more potentially fatal conditions in the same patient – meant that such measures would only prolong the misery.)

This she reluctantly did. Not surprisingly, she had more questions to ask, but the person who had called had no ready answers, other than to advise her to “prepare for the worst”. For the moment, they would keep me on oxygen – but if I didn’t start breathing independently, I would die.

I only learned all this later, after I had made it through the first stage of recovery. For now, though, I was on the other side of sleep, in what Dylan Thomas calls “the close and holy darkness”. I have no memory of those lost hours; what I do recall is that, when I emerged, I felt an odd detachment, a sense of peace that I wouldn’t even have tried to explain. I want to say that this was by no means a religious, or even a “spiritual” experience; on the contrary, it was altogether this-worldly. Earthly. Natural. A perfect instance, in fact, of “blossomiest blossom”.

To fans of television drama, that reference may be familiar. It comes from an interview the screenwriter Dennis Potter gave in 1994, three months before he died of pancreatic cancer. “The only thing you know for sure,” he said, “is the present tense, and that nowness becomes so vivid that, almost in a perverse sort of way, I’m almost serene. You know, I can celebrate life.” By that stage, he was close to death, his pain muted with morphine, but he appeared to be as clear-headed as ever. He continued:

Below my window in Ross… the blossom is out in full now… It’s a plum tree, it looks like apple blossom but it’s white, and looking at it… I see it is the whitest, frothiest, blossomiest blossom that there ever could be, and I can see it. Things are both more trivial than they ever were, and more important than they ever were, and the difference between the trivial and the important doesn’t seem to matter. But the nowness 0f everything is absolutely wondrous.

I remember that, back then, the phrase “blossomiest blossom” stuck in my mind, not just for its dubious grammar, but because it seemed to capture a sensation I had experienced, off and on, since childhood, a sensation that is equally well expressed, albeit in more theoretical form, by Wittgenstein’s notion of “das Mystische” in proposition 6.44 of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus: “It is not how things are in the world that is mystical, but that it exists” (my italics).

I have no great wish to get into philosophy here; rather, I find myself, and not for the first time, in pursuit of something that cannot be expressed in logical terms. Nevertheless, it does seem important, for several reasons, not least ecosophical, that one of philosophy’s more interesting aims, during the last century, was to strip away the religious paraphernalia from das Mystische and express it as an earthly, quotidian experience, while retaining Potter’s intuition of “the wondrous”.

Writing this now, I am painfully aware that it is all entirely theoretical, an obvious and fairly cack-handed attempt to give voice to that “whereof one cannot speak”. Yet what mattered, at that moment in the hospital, when I returned, Lazarus-like, from the far side of sleep, was the feeling I had – a kind of detachment, yes, but a detachment tempered with a real sense of wonder and the impulse, as Potter puts it, to celebrate life.

I don’t know how long I lay there alone, maybe minutes, maybe longer. During that time, I became aware that somebody had been to tidy me up: where the sheets had been rucked and damp with sweat before, the smooth, freshly laundered bed covers now confined me perfectly; it also seemed that my face had been washed or, at the very least, lightly swabbed with some sweet-scented lotion or soap. For a moment, I was confused: had this been done as part of some formal ritual, because I was dying, or was it related in some way to Covid-19?

Clearly, I still wasn’t thinking straight; and yet I felt calm, detached from my own predicament, even slightly bemused, not least by the questions that were running through my head. Looking back, I see that this wandering and utterly trivial chain of questions might have gone on indefinitely, leaving me forever suspended in time and place; luckily, however, a nurse arrived, bearing strange, yet entirely predictable gifts.

I suppose every return from great injury or mortal terror contains a spell – an hour, a day, a long moment – when some hitherto banal event becomes highly poignant, a landmark in the heart’s geography. There is no way to explain why this ordinary event seems to hold some improbable yet oddly inevitable meaning, all we can do is grasp it when it comes, like Ariadne’s thread, and hope it leads us back to the known world, a little wiser, a little lighter, a little more appreciative of everyday blessings than before. Humbler, it should go without saying.

In this case, what led me back was a tomato sandwich on white bread, and a cup of very weak, very milky tea. It’s hardly a poetic image, yet there was something about its very banality that delighted me. To begin with, I was fairly sceptical about the whole process – could I actually eat this? Would I ever be able to eat food again? After some hesitation, however, and with a little help from the nurse, I managed to consume this – what? lunch? dinner? I had no idea what time, or even what day it was. But nothing I have ever eaten has tasted so wonderful. As long as I have breath, I will treat every tomato sandwich that life offers me with nothing less than the fullest sense of blossomiest blossom.


It was the taste of that sandwich, which I ate very slowly, and with considerable relish, that convinced me that I wasn’t going to die quite yet. The next several days were, by turns, wonderfully solitary and strangely convivial; the nurses and doctors who came and went were clearly surprised (and, apparently, rather pleased) that I had come through more or less intact. (As one nurse observed, when I thanked him for some kindness, there was no need for thanks, he was just happy to see me getting better – and I was reminded that, for these people, at this time of “excess deaths”, even a partial success story must have been a kind of blessing.)

I have to admit, I held these people in real and rather sentimental awe. Like many of those who have stood at their front doors every week to applaud our NHS “heroes”, I wanted to thank every nurse and porter and auxiliary I encountered for their unstinting kindness and professionalism but, all too obviously, this is not what is needed. What is needed is fair pay and decent working conditions, not virtual haloes and angels’ wings. If one thing comes out of this pandemic, it should be justice for all those essential workers who keep the world not only running, but more merciful than it would be otherwise. My brush with mortality might have chastened me, but this was significantly less humbling than the care I was given by everyone from the paramedics who got me to A&E on time, to the exhausted junior doctors who seemed never to leave the wards, to the nurses who, quite literally, kept me breathing.

Today, I am still breathing, and with the right medication and support, I may continue to do so for some time. But I remember all too vividly the sensation of not being able to breathe. That sensation is as close as I have ever come to existential panic. I cannot begin to imagine what George Floyd suffered, in those eight-plus minutes, when he was killed by asphyxiation at the hands of the police. But I at least have a better understanding of what it means to gasp out the words: Please. I can’t breathe.

The need for oxygen is universal; as the poet of Ecclesiastes says, not only of human, but of all living creatures “as the one dieth, so dieth the other; yea, they have all one breath”. Knowing this, how can we tolerate a society that wilfully deprives its inhabitants of that most basic necessity?


Six days after I was supposed to die, I went home – and though I had only been gone a week, everything had changed. Suddenly, in the yards and gardens that lined the road, it was summer; the street trees were leafing up, and here and there on the new estates a Japanese cherry, or a flowering almond, stood resplendent in its own tight plot of emerald lawn. One in particular caught my eye, a blowsy, spreading Shirofugen cherry that immediately brought Potter’s blossomiest blossom remark to mind. I had driven this road a thousand times, but it had never looked so beautiful.

At the same time, because the journey was slow, in spite of lockdown I had the chance to revisit a game I had played as a child, peering through the window of my uncle’s car at the passing streets and imagining what it was like to live in one of those houses, to walk across this farmyard at first light, to sleep with another in that upper room.

In a poem from 1917, “During Wind and Rain”, Thomas Hardy describes a family’s life over a period of years, mixing elegy with matter-of-fact celebration, as they create their first home with “pathways neat/ and the garden gay” until finally, as the poem ends, they “change to a high new house”.

Clocks and carpets and chairs  On the lawn all day And brightest things that are theirs…  Ah, no; the years, the years; Down their carved names the rain-drop ploughs.

With characteristic economy, Hardy sums up the joys and losses of an entire generation in four seven-line stanzas. Life ends, he suggests, and most people make no great mark in history, but they live in community and they find blossomiest blossom moments amid that flux. Moments that do not last, in linear time, but somehow endure, in the fabric of das Mystische, that common miracle of presence where, as John Ashbery has noted, “life is divided up/ Between you and me, and among all the others out there.” 

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This article appears in the 22 Jul 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Summer special