When things get worse

Most people we spoke to were ill at home for several days, during which they began to feel worse and worse. When people sought help depended on how severe they believed their symptoms to be, and how likely they judged the health services were actually going to be able to help them. Some people had very few symptoms at all, and yet went on to require an admission to an Intensive Care Unit (ICU) (see ‘Managing with symptoms at home’).

This page covers:

  • How difficult it was to know when to seek help as symptoms get worse
  • Getting advice from healthcare providers over the phone (111, NHS24, 999)
  • Getting ready for hospital admission

Determining the right moment to seek help

It was not always straightforward to know when to seek help. A few people had looked up information and closely followed the news about Covid before getting ill. Some called 111 in the UK or NHS24 in Scotland to get urgent medical advice on what to do.

In the early days of the pandemic, realising they had Covid and needed help was a frightening idea for people. Getting help was symbolically important, because it meant acknowledging the severity of the situation. Kate recalled: “I remember getting upset on the phone, which is crazy, ‘cause I’ve called 999 so many times, and they were asking about his symptoms, and they said, ‘do you think he could have Covid?’ And I said, yes. And I cried down the phone, because that was the first time that I’d acknowledged that he could have it.”

Particularly during peaks of the pandemic in 2020/2021, when the medical helplines were overwhelmed with the number of people trying to use the service, it often took a long time to get through to someone. Some were advised to stay at home when they personally felt they needed medical attention, and found this frustrating.

Paul’s wife called NHS24 but had. to wait for a long time before they could help her.

For others, reaching the helpline and receiving advice on whether calling an ambulance was needed was relatively straightforward.

Caroline believes she would not have survived if her GP had not followed up with her.

Accessing urgent and emergency care

It was often around the ninth or tenth day that people’s health had deteriorated so much that they called 999, or asked someone to call for them, or took themselves to A&E.

Goutam’s symptoms were so intense, that he and his wife saw no other option but to call an ambulance

Brian describes how he “managed” eight days at home, during which both he and his wife were feeling very unwell and increasingly breathless, and everyday tasks were a real struggle. However, there came a point when he and his wife were no longer able to cope. When his wife called an ambulance, Brian was taken in by the paramedics, whilst she was advised to stay at home. Wendy felt her symptoms were worse than an earlier experience with a lung disease, and called an ambulance when she was struggling for air.

Brian and his wife “managed” for eight days at home before calling an ambulance.

Even though they were extremely unwell, some people told us how they delayed calling an ambulance, until they could no longer do so. Some were fearful of what going to hospital would mean for their daily lives, work and wellbeing.

Chris called an ambulance when he struggled to breathe even when sat down.

For several people, there was a moment of crisis that led them or their family members to call an ambulance.

His son found Yacoob lying on the bathroom floor and called an ambulance.

Of course, not everyone lives with another person who can help them decide when to seek help. Those who lived alone were sometimes very ill at home without anybody knowing. Sometimes unwilling, sometimes unable to seek help themselves, they depended on a family member or friend calling an ambulance when they realised they needed help.

Michael did not call an ambulance, because he felt others needed it more. His sister called one for him.

Waiting for the ambulance

Some told us their admission to hospital happened very suddenly, which meant that they had no time to prepare. Paramedics often reminded them, just before they were taken to hospital, to pack a phone and a charger. For others, the long wait for the ambulance meant they had time to pack some belongings to take with them. Sadia had already helped her husband to hospital with Covid, and this experience helped her to pack the right things when her father fell ill (see ‘When more than one person is ill’).

Sadia’s husband had been in hospital with Covid, so when her father was admitted, she knew what to do.

Sometimes the wait for an ambulance was longer than people felt they could manage without help. When Donna and her husband Simon had Covid in the second peak they were both isolating. When it became clear he needed to get to hospital, Donna asked their daughter to take him to Accident & Emergency as she was unable to leave the house and no ambulances were available.

When Simon became increasingly unwell, Donna was in self-isolation so that their daughter had to take him to A&E.

People knew that having to go to hospital meant their condition was serious. Carl remembered: “When the ambulance came, I kind of knew it was serious. When I got into the ambulance I tried to not stress, because I’d got my wife and my two boys there, they’re 13 and 15. And because in a fortunate way they didn’t really know much about it because it was only really the very start of it. Loads and loads of people were very worried, but I knew it was risky and I knew when I got in the ambulance this might be it, I knew that. But in the back of my mind I was telling myself I’ll be okay, I’m going to be okay.”

Read more about people’s experiences of Admission to the ward and ICU and family members’ efforts of Staying in touch during the visitor ban.

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