When Greek pensioner Yannis Ieremias went into intensive care with Covid-19 in November, he never expected it would be 50 days before he woke up.
Now the 70-year-old former schoolteacher, still under medical supervision and learning to walk again, dreams of the day he can see his family again and go home to his olives trees on the island of Crete.
“When I awoke, I was still lethargic, I couldn’t open my eyes, I could only hear,” said the pensioner from the Theseus Rehabilitation Centre in Athens, where he is undergoing physical therapy to regain movement in his limbs.
“I went in November 10 and when I woke I heard people talking about Christmas.”
With around 6,000 deaths, Greece has contained the coronavirus pandemic better than much of Europe and prevented its health service, badly weakened after a decade of financial crisis, from collapsing.
But the “long COVID” that leaves patients like Ieremias struggling with debilitating symptoms many months after the initial phase of the disease has passed, could test the system well into the future.
“These patients cannot sit by themselves, they can’t hold up their head, they can’t even hold a glass of water,” said Adonis Doukas, who heads a team of about 15 therapists and psychologists at the centre. As well as physical problems, many struggle mentally with stress, loss of memory or concentration.
Ieremias lost 26 kilos including significant amounts of muscle mass. He cannot get out of bed alone, uses a catheter, and struggles to walk.
“Everything is difficult at the beginning, but slowly I will make it. When I started with the walker, I could only go a few steps. Now I can go 20, 30 metres,” he said.
More than 1,200 COVID patients have been through intensive care in Greece since the pandemic began, and ICU occupancy is running at some 70%, underlining the challenge the system will face in the months ahead.
Ieremias, who has not seen his family since November, does not expect to go home for another month. “I miss them a lot,” he said.
“I had other dreams, I wanted to go back to Crete, to collect my olives, to my daily routine, and unfortunately I found myself in the intensive care unit hooked up to tubes,” he said.
“Anyone who goes through this needs a tough character”.