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The New Normal: Pastor Mark McClurg on his return to Sunday services after battling coronavirus

When Co Down pastor Mark McClurg tweeted a video of himself struggling to breathe in hospital after contracting coronavirus, the post swept across the world and was even mentioned by the head of the World Health Organisation. He speaks to Claire Simpson about returning to church and his ongoing battle against the disease.

Mark McClurg outside Ards Elim church. Picture by Hugh Russell

In March, pastor Mark McClurg was told by doctors his coronavirus symptoms were so severe he might have to be sedated.

Five months on, he is still in recovery but yesterday celebrated his first Sunday morning service at Ards Elim Church since before lockdown.

Speaking before yesterday's service, he said he expected the landmark to be “emotional”.

“I appreciate we are just in this together and we will get through this together,” he said.

At the start of the pandemic, the 40-year-old posted a video of himself being treated at the Ulster Hospital in Dundonald.

The video swiftly went viral and even came to the attention of Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the World Health Organisation, who thanked him for highlighting the dangers of the virus.

READ MORE: The New Normal: Beauty salon owner Caroline Purdy on the 'most stressful time in my life'

The father-of-three spent almost two weeks in hospital, including a week in intensive care, and was eventually discharged on March 29.

“I was ill from the start of March but my symptoms weren’t the normal symptoms,” he said.

“I had no high temperature, no cough. I started off with conjunctivitis that went into a stye. Then I had really bad back pain and chest pain. I thought my mattress had broken because I was waking up with bad pain.

“By March 15, I went to church and was preaching and I had no energy - total fatigue - I’ve never felt the like before.

“On Monday March 16, I had to meet a couple for a marriage class and I just came home and I had no energy. At this stage the shortness of breath kept getting worse. On Monday night, I came up the stairs and Claire (my wife) was putting the kids to bed and I said ‘Claire, I can’t breathe’.”

Pastor Mark McClurg at Ards Elim church. Picture by Hugh Russell

He phoned an out-of-hours doctor and while he was waiting for a response, he contacted a nurse who worships at his church. She advised him to go to the emergency department at the Ulster Hospital.

Although initial swabs suggested he did not have coronavirus, he was still struggling to breathe.

“It just feels as if someone has dropped two bags of broken glass into your lungs so every breath is painful,” he said.

“You’ve got chest pains and you’ve got back pains. It’s unbelievable pain.

He added: “I could only breath into the top part of my lungs. I couldn’t take deep breaths. It’s like trying to breathe under water.

“Thankfully a team came up from the ICU (intensive care unit) and said ‘you’re critical, we need to take you down’.”

Mr McClurg was put on a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) ventilator to help him breathe.

“They told me if my lungs didn’t improve I would have been sedated,” he said.

“That was talked about on the first Saturday. But that CPAP really did help me. It pushes oxygen right into the deepest part of your lungs.”

He was in intensive care for a week. When he did start to recover, he needed two staff to help him walk.

“It’s scary how quickly your body shuts down,” he said.

After he was discharged, he experienced severe problems with his gut.

“I was on a major dose of antibiotics. My gut was bloated, it was painful, I was in agony,” he said.

On the advice of his sister-in-law, a dietician, he began taking probiotic tablets. But although they have helped, he still suffers from tiredness and some breathing problems.

“Even if I go out for a nice walk with my family, I have to lie down and go to sleep (afterwards)… When I take deep breaths I feel little pockets (in my lungs) are blocked. The good thing is I had an X-ray done a couple of weeks ago and they said I was free from infection.”

Mark McClurg with wife Claire, daughter Lilianna and twin sons Judah and Josiah. Picture by Mark McClurg/Twitter/Facebook

He said his wife Claire also contracted coronavirus, albeit a milder form, and he also suspected his daughter may have suffered too.

“I think Lilianna was unwell too but after a few days she improved,” he said.

“I think the only way you could prove you had it is through a swab but not everyone had the swab.”

His twin sons Josiah and Judah did not fall ill.

Mr McClurg said one of the positives to come from his illness is that he has been able to give advice to friends who also suffered from coronavirus.

“One was lying down in his bed, coughing really bad,” he said.

“Thankfully, I’ve had really good help from respiratory physiotherapists and what really helped me wasn’t lying in my ICU bed but getting up, even though it was sore.

“Just sitting in a chair opened my lungs and helped me breathe. So I decided to make a video. Just the simple thing of making a video has helped so many people.”

While he was recovering from the virus, he preached online and led prayer meetings and Bible studies via Zoom.

Pastor Mark McClurg ahead of his first Sunday service since he contracted coronavirus in March. Picture by Hugh Russell

“I’m used to being in front of people and near people,” he said.

“That has been difficult. It’s been a steep learning curve. You’re doing as much as you can to reach as many as you can and to help as many as you can.

He added: “The life of a pastor is totally different now.

“It’s more phone calls, it’s moving online with messages, sermons and church services. It’s a different way of doing church."

Although the church has held some mid-week and Sunday evening services, yesterday was the first time a Sunday morning service was held since the start of lockdown.

The church was deep-cleaned before the service, only limited numbers were allowed per pew and church-goers were asked to wear masks. Those who were unable to wear a mask for health reasons were asked not to sing.

Mr McClurg filmed a ‘walk-through video’ and posted it on social media to let his congregation know what changes to expect before yesterday’s Sunday morning service.

“There’s a welcome table with hand sanitiser and free masks,” he said.

“If someone has forgotten a mask, one will be provided. It’s so everyone is safe and are also protecting one another as best we possibly can because all we can do is mitigate the risks.”

He added: “Obviously in church we are huggy and shake hands. We would sit down and chat before and after the service. But after the service now we will just have to leave and go home.

Mr McClurg said he has been “humbled” by the goodwill he has received from people.

“For me, church is more than just coming on a Sunday,” he said.

“It’s friendship. It’s fellowship. And for me the most important thing going forward is our mental health. It’s about engaging with people and communicating with people, and that’s my heart, and that’s always been my heart.”

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