At this time of the year, we’re normally gearing up to celebrate Easter; the moment when we acknowledge with jubilant cries the victory over sin and death that Jesus Christ won for us on the cross.
But there is nothing ‘normal’ about the world we are currently living in. In self-isolation, as we approach the most significant feast day in the Christian calendar, life looks completely different. For everyone. But in particular, for me and my family, who have been waging our own personal war.
Last week I developed my first symptom of Covid-19, the deadly virus which, at the time of writing, has claimed 1,228 lives across the UK and more than 30,000 worldwide. It started, as is the typical trajectory of this sneaky, virulent disease, with a dry cough so slight I hardly noticed it. Friends laughed with me over video call about Corona paranoia as I softly spluttered into my armpit. But in the days that followed, I began to feel a tightness in my chest. “That’s normal,” I said to myself, batting back the niggling doubt that I might be unwell. “I’m just anxious because of all of the horror unfolding in our world.”
I catalogued the pain under ‘stress’ and put it in a folder in my mind labelled ‘hypochondria’. But as the days progressed, my temperature started to rise and I was finding that I was having to take long, deep breaths at the end of sentences.
On day eight, I woke up drenched in sweat, shaking uncontrollably. I said to my husband that, for the sake of our three-year-old daughter, I would take myself off to our spare room and keep away from them – just in case. By that evening I was calling 111. It felt like my whole chest was in a vice and that this evil pestilence had burrowed deep down into me. A clinician called me back in the early hours, explaining that, based on my symptoms, she was diagnosing me with coronavirus and that the time to ring for an ambulance would be when I could no longer breathe.
It was at this point that I learned of the important difference between ‘shortness of breath’ and ‘difficulty breathing’. I was experiencing shortness of breath, a frightening symptom of Covid-19, which means you feel as if your ribcage is restricted and you have to inhale much deeper than usual. It can quickly turn into a problem (gasping and panting for air). This is when to call for help (and not before, apparently). At any other point in modern history I would have been being seen to by a doctor immediately due to the severity of my condition, but in this brave new world, at this time, I was being told not to call 999 until I was critical because of the extreme pressure the NHS is currently under.
Willing myself not to think about the vulnerable position this advice left me in, I decided instead to focus on the miniscule amount of relief that I was not yet at the critical stage that many others had sadly reached. There might still be hope for me. I tried to fall asleep. I managed just an hour and a half; the rest of the night was spent in fever-induced restlessness.
Praying for victory
The following day I woke up covered in sweat again but feeling marginally better. I called my frantic parents to give them the slither of hope that had just filtered through the window like the light I could see creeping under the blinds in my bedroom sick bay. Their grave faces relayed the truth that I was not yet out of the woods. They were right. By that evening I could feel in my body the invading virus, which earlier had been pushed back by my robust 34-year-old immune system, surging back, trying to regain ground.
At this point I was getting serious with God. I prayed continuously for victory, willing my white blood cells on, praying for an increase in antibodies, declaring the power of Jesus to overcome evil. Wave after wave was coming at me, filling my body with heat. Similar to the surges of labour just before a baby is born, I held tight to the hope that breakthrough was coming. That joy was close. All the while trying to stop the wretched images of people on ventilators and in intensive care units from entering my mind. Breathe, breathe, breathe.
Looking back now, two days on, I truly believe this moment was the decisive point my Lord and saviour broke in and won the battle for me. Experts have shown that while 85 per cent of people experience mild symptoms that last only seven days, 15 per cent of people go on to experience a more extreme version of coronavirus from day eight onwards, many of whom end up hospitalised. On day nine the crunch point came for me. I was in bed in the same smelly pyjamas I’d worn for days, ensconced in my thick dressing gown and shrouded in a puffy warm duvet, when the final surge reached climax and my body, drenched in sweat, cried out for cool air. Foggy and disoriented, with a raging fever of 38.7, I began to peel back my duvet and unwrap my dressing gown when I experienced a voice saying: “Don't take off the covers. Don’t let yourself get cold.”
Everything in me wanted to reject it. Everything in me wanted some relief from the intensity, some cool air on my skin. I kept praying: “Lord, have mercy on me. Lord, give strength to my body.” I could feel the deepest ache in my chest like nothing I have ever experienced before. The breath was being squeezed out of me.
Eventually, after what felt like an age, the surges stopped and my fever began to retreat. I now believe that had I ignored the voice telling me to keep warm, I would have enabled the virus to unleash the pneumonia it was so intent on striking me with at that moment.
Day ten I woke up relieved to be alive. It felt as if I were past the peak of the illness and that I might be crawling towards recovery, but I was still too scared to dare think I was free of it yet. I spent the day trying to distract myself on social media.
I woke up relieved to be alive
By the evening I was looking for something to lift my spirits before the terrible onslaught of night sweats that I knew was coming, so I rustled around on my bed for my Bible. I wanted to read a psalm that a friend had texted to encourage me, when I noticed that my Bible was already open on a page. As I lifted it up, I read the subheading that caught my eye...'Hezekiah’s illness'.
With amazement and joy I found that the passage from 2 Kings 20, which, if I’m honest, I don’t recall ever having read before, confirmed in my spirit what I had already begun to tentatively sense: God had delivered me.
The passage reads: “In those days Hezekiah became ill and was at the point of death. The prophet Isaiah son of Amoz went to him and said, “This is what the Lord says: Put your house in order, because you are going to die; you will not recover.” Hezekiah turned his face to the wall and prayed to the Lord, “Remember, Lord, how I have walked before you faithfully and with wholehearted devotion and have done what is good in your eyes.” And Hezekiah wept bitterly. Before Isaiah had left the middle court, the word of the Lord came to him: “Go back and tell Hezekiah, the ruler of my people, ‘This is what the Lord, the God of your father David, says: I have heard your prayer and seen your tears; I will heal you. On the third day from now you will go up to the temple of the Lord. I will add fifteen years to your life. And I will deliver you and this city from the hand of the king of Assyria. I will defend this city for my sake and for the sake of my servant David.’”
Dumbfounded I praised the God who had heard my prayers and, what’s more, in his mercy, had confirmed to me the miracle he had just unleashed. I wept with joy and relief that the fervent intercession of my friends and family, and my own desperate pleading had been acknowledged by the God who saves, the God who shows mercy, a God who is in control. I thanked him for what he had taught me in those dark hours, for the support and love of those I hold dear and for the sacrifice of his son, Jesus, who, unlike me, was able to say in the hour of his agony: “…yet not as I will, but as you will”.
In contrast to Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane on Good Friday, I had begged God for my life back. I cried out in desperation for more years to love and look after my husband, who was by now also showing signs of the disease, and for our little girl, innocently playing downstairs in a plague-ridden home. God heard those prayers.
God with us
I would not wish coronavirus on my worst enemy, but I’m not angry at God for what I went through. I don’t believe God created the coronavirus. Our God is good and loving and kind; Covid-19 is vicious, aggressive and wants to take the breath out of your lungs, the very life from your body. This illness, like all illnesses, originates from sin and the evil one, but God can and does use it for our good.
As my colleague Justin Brierley put it so well in his recent blog on why God doesn’t mend the world: “The Coronavirus is just one more example of the broken world we live in…By creating a world of free creatures – both physical and spiritual – God has granted a level of freedom to the whole of the created order. That means that God won’t simply step in and wave a magic wand to take away the suffering in the world. We are part of the problem of evil, and God has chosen us to be part of the solution too.”
Throughout the duration of my ordeal I knew that God was right there with me. Many Christians were praying and I was regularly on my metaphorical knees (often too unwell to leave bed). I held on to the fact that he is a miracle-working God who can redeem and renew even the most desperate situations. That was my experience over the days in which I teetered between life and death, as I stood in the dark space between Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday – a place of despair and sorrow and lament.
On day eleven, my husband, who I had not been able to touch or go anywhere near for days, called to me from outside my door to look out of the window. There in the clear-blue sky was a perfect rainbow, the sign of God’s covenant with his people. God’s answer was clear. I was finally able to declare, with full faith: “IT IS FINISHED!”