Long Covid support latest Northern Ireland Chest Heart & Stroke service as charity marks 75th anniversary
Northern Ireland Chest Heart & Strike was founded during the TB crisis of 1946 and, as it marks its 75th anniversary, now finds itself helping in the fight against another respiratory pandemic, Covid-19. Mairead Holland finds out about the charity's support for long Covid patients and its work with stroke survivors
WHEN long Covid sufferer Philip McGhee was offered a place on a Northern Ireland Chest Heart & Stroke (NICHS) support course, his initial reaction was one of scepticism.
"I thought, 'That's only for old people and people who have had strokes'," he says.
But six months on, he cannot believe how wrong he was.
As it turned out, he found the eight-week course so beneficial that he didn't want it to end and credits it as being the "first big step" in his physical and mental recovery.
The 54-year-old Co Armagh man is among those who continue to suffering the effects of Covid-19 months after contracting the virus.
And he has been helped by a unique recovery service for sufferers established by NICHS in response to the pandemic.
It's a return to its roots for the charity - which is celebrating its 75th anniversary this month - as it was initially set up as the Northern Ireland branch of the National Association for the Prevention of Tuberculosis.
As chief executive Declan Cunnane says: "We were founded as a reaction to the tuberculosis public health crisis three quarters of a century ago, and today we battle another respiratory pandemic - Covid-19."
Lurgan man Philip, who suffers from asthma but was always fit and active, was diagnosed with coronavirus in December and although he is vastly improved, he still has trouble with his breathing, cognitive functioning, joint and leg pain, as well as severe fatigue.
"They told me in hospital I have post-viral fatigue," he explains.
Covid started with a sore throat and a few days later I was just floored. I could barely talk, I was gasping for breath... I used to walk for miles. But now, after 20 minutes, my breathing is heavy and I have to use my inhaler
Philip McGhee, long Covid patient
As an allied health professional assistant, working daily with occupational and physiotherapy patients, it was the reversal of roles that was one of the hardest things to come to terms with.
"Suddenly I was the patient and I found that very hard to accept," says Philip.
"Covid started with a sore throat and a few days later I was just floored and went downhill for two-and-a-half weeks. I could barely talk, I was gasping for breath. I was really ill."
At one point he was admitted to hospital because his breathing was so laboured, but after tests was allowed home the same day.
"My GP was fantastic and so was the hospital team, who contacted me every day for two weeks," he says.
"In the early days I could barely walk. I could get down the stairs, but not back up them.
"Before I took Covid, I used to walk for miles with my wife Ann - my asthma never slowed me down. But now, after 20 minutes, my breathing is heavy and I have to use my blue inhaler."
Those early days with the virus were difficult. "There were a lot of tears in December - it was an awful time, really challenging - but I class myself as one of the lucky ones," says Philip, who credits the "fantastic support" of the NICHS group for getting him to the point where he could "get out of the house and go walking".
"It really lifted me and moved me in the direction I needed to go," he says.
"They had various tools you could tap into, and a book which changes your thinking about self-management. I have dyslexia and it was simple information, not medical jargon."
For Philip, it was also about sharing experiences with others in the group - who had a range of health problems, as well as long Covid.
Today, the father-of-two is grateful for all signs of progress. He has been told he doesn't have any scarring in his lungs and doctors are hopeful he will make a full recovery by Christmas.
A baker and confectioner by trade, he worked in bakeries for more than 20 years after leaving school, and it is believed this is how he damaged his lungs, resulting in asthma.
Having volunteered with charities, including accompanying the sick to Lourdes for 15 years, he eventually retrained for his current role with the Southern Health and Social Care Trust, and says it has been incredibly supportive during his illness.
"I have been told not to push myself. I I go out walking three days a week for half an hour to 40 minutes and plan to start swimming," he says.
"I'm a young 54-year-old and it's up to me to take control. I keep in contact with my asthma nurse and monitor my own blood and oxygen. I am improving."
Mentally, the experience can still feel raw at times.
"I went to counselling and I am still quite nervous about going into places in case I get Covid again, although I did feel a lot safer once I got the second vaccine," adds Philip.
"But I'm feeling positive. It's onwards and upwards for me now."
We were founded as a reaction to the tuberculosis public health crisis three quarters of a century ago, and today we battle another respiratory pandemic - Covid-19
Declan Cunnane, NICHS
For Bangor woman Tina Gault (74), it is 20 years since she discovered the life-changing benefits of NICHS - and a hidden talent.
The mother-of-three suffered a stroke in 2001, shortly after taking early retirement from her job as an area manager for the school meals service.
She had just returned from holiday in Tunisia with husband Stewart when she suffered a mild stroke followed by a second, life-changing one.
Tina was left paralysed on the right side, lost her power of speech and was hospitalised for several months.
Since then, she has not only regained her independence by learning to use her left hand but has also rediscovered a love of art and has turned out to be something of a whizz with a paintbrush.
Tina's salvation, as she sees it, began in those early days in hospital when she was visited by a member of the NICHS stroke team who encouraged her to join its local support group.
"At the start, I was in a wheelchair and unable to communicate. It was incredibly frustrating, especially not being able to talk. I did do speech and language therapy, but after a while they realised that was as good as it was going to get," she says.
It was at the support group that she began art therapy.
"A volunteer, John McCroskey, spent painstaking hours teaching me - and others - how to apply paint to canvas. But he was teaching us more than simply how to paint," she says.
"He was helping us to take back some of what our strokes had stolen from us.
"I don't use my wheelchair indoors now and, although I haven't regained my speech, I have learned to write and paint.
"Without Northern Ireland Chest Heart & Stroke, and the people who donate to it, I might never have regained what I have."
Daughter Debra, who cares for her mother, especially since Stewart's death six years ago, says Tina is fiercely independent and enjoys life to the full.
"She showers herself, puts her own bedclothes on and does her own ironing. She is a trained chef and her cooking is still better than mine, even with one hand. I called in the other day and she handed me an apple crumble she had made," she laughs.
"She makes my daughter's birthday cakes every year. She is in the mindset where she can either lie down or be counted."
Tina has continued to attend the support group and is looking forward to it resuming in person once coronavirus is over.
Meanwhile, one of her paintings - of the Harland & Wolff cranes Samson and Goliath - hangs proudly in the charity's head office.
And as the charity reflects on a remarkable 75 years, Mr Cunnane has paid tribute to the "ongoing generosity of the local community", pointing out that NICHS services are only possible thanks to the public whose donations fund almost 90 per cent of its work.
"We have funded millions of pounds' worth of ground-breaking research, conducted thousands of health checks and lobbied local government on critical health issues," he says.
"We continue to finesse our care services and develop more and more ways to help local people manage their health. And we have no intention of slowing down now."
More about Northern Ireland Chest Heart & Stroke and its services at nichs.org.uk