Giorgos Paiteris was skeptical as bars and restaurants were shuttered and public transport restricted during the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic in Greece. “I didn’t believe it all that much; it seemed so over-the-top,” he says of the lockdown imposed by the Greek government in March. No one he knew had been infected and there were no reports of illness in his neighborhood. That was until he and both his sons spiked a fever on the same day in early June.
“I felt exhausted, weak and achy. I just wanted to lie down all the time; I had no appetite,” he says. He had to be hospitalized when his symptoms worsened and he spent two weeks at the capital’s Sotiria Hospital, along with his eldest son. His youngest, aged 21, had to be intubated and was in intensive care at the Thriasio Hospital for 30 days due to complications caused by asthma and a recent bout with bronchitis.
A total of seven members of his family were infected. Paiteris’ wife and sister-in-law were able to ride out the illness at home, feeling nothing more than some weakness and a loss of their sense of smell and taste. “I was skeptical until we got it,” he says today. “I saw people being intubated; it’s tough.”
Becoming ill and seeing his loved ones get sick may have cured Paiteris of his skepticism, but not so a number of acquaintances. “At first they thought we were lying. Then they started making up stories that we had been paid to say that we had got sick from the coronavirus,” the 47-year-old tells Kathimerini. “I advised them to be careful and to protect themselves, to maintain safe distances and listen to the infectious disease experts.”
Despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the official updates on the course of the virus in this country and the images from other countries struggling with bigger outbreaks, a large number of people continue to believe sundry conspiracy theories and fake science about the pandemic. Covid deniers says face masks are “gags” and believe that their use promotes the secret agenda of nefarious forces. Tracers from the Civil Protection Authority have recently been reporting cases of asymptomatic carriers challenging positive test results when they are contacted about them.
Kathimerini spoke to four Covid-19 patients who were hospitalized at Sotiria in the spring. All expressed their gratitude to the doctors, nurses and staff at the hospital, as well as their heartfelt wish that no one ever finds themselves in their position.
“Even if I help one person look at things differently, it would be an accomplishment,” says Yiannis Emmanouilidis, who was discharged from Sotiria’s Covid clinic in late April. “It’s bonkers to see people acting so recklessly because they don’t believe in the virus.”
Emmanouilidis still does not know when or how he was infected, though be believes it may have been during a trip to Poland in early March, before the virus flared up in Greece. He remembers a fellow passenger on the flight back to Athens looking quite ill, shivering and sneezing.
He felt fine the entire week after and the next Saturday went on a hike up Mount Penteli. The climb was without incident but he started running a fever later that night. He was not coughing or feeling any tightness in his chest, but he had a low fever that persisted for several days. He called three doctors who refused to make a home visit, while the operator on the hotline of the National Organization for Public Health (EODY) advised him to self-isolate at home.
He decided to have himself tested at a private hospital after his fever climbed close to 39 Celsius and he started feeling very weak. The test came back positive and shortly after he had to be hospitalized. He spent 40 days at Sotiria but is still struggling to recover. He lost 15 kilograms, mainly muscle mass, and could not get around or do anything on his own for days. He had to move in with his parents for a few weeks so they could help him.
“There’s no explanation why I had such a hard time of it. I always felt invincible. I have no underlying illnesses; I watch my diet and I don’t drink,” says the 47-year-old. He was given the last course of anti-clotting injections in late May and had his first post-recovery checkup in June, with another scheduled in late September. He says his lungs have not yet recovered. He’s back home and still likes to walk on Penteli, though he hasn’t attempted the climb to the top. “To everyone who does not believe in the virus, I really hope nothing like this ever befalls a loved one,” he says.
Kostas Syrigos is the director of the Third Pathology Clinic at Sotiria, which is responsible for Covid patients, and a professor at the University of Athens. He says that the clinic has been receiving a steady flow of patients in recent days and that their average age had dropped to around 40. They’ve even had to intubate an 18-year-old. The length of time that patients stay in the clinic has also increased to more than two weeks, while the growing expertise and experience of the medical and nursing staff means that they are able to deal with trickier cases more effectively and do not need to intubate as many patients as before.
His clinic is the only one in the Attica region that has not closed once since the start of the health crisis, unlike the others that closed briefly during the summer because they didn’t have any patients and took the opportunity to disinfect the wards.
“I watch people on television saying that it’s all a rumor and that they won’t get infected. When it started they said it was too far away in China to affect us,” says a 62-year-old woman who was recently discharged from a 40-day stay at Sotiria. Her 89-year-old mother who was in the room next door was not as fortunate and died of Covid-19.
“But it came. This disease knows no borders and has no reason,” she told Kathimerini on condition of anonymity. “People need to open their eyes and act more responsibly, because this illness does not discriminate.”
The 62-year-old spent the first few days after being discharged from intensive care trying to stay awake, afraid that if she fell asleep the “oxygen would go away.” Her recovery was relatively smooth and now she’s at home, following a course of treatment prescribed by her doctors. She is also due to be examined by a pathologist, a cardiologist and an endocrinologist in a month’s time and has taken a few weeks off work to recover completely. “This disease takes a long time,” she says, admitting that she gets tired easily.
Another recently discharged patient, a 50-year-old man, also spoke to Kathimerini on condition of anonymity, saying the first symptom he felt after becoming infected with coronavirus was a dry throat. That was in early August. He was tested and it came out positive. After isolating at home for around 10 days, his condition deteriorated and tests indicated that he needed to be hospitalized. His body appears to have responded well to treatment and he was released in just 10 days. Other patients he spoke with, however, had a much harder time. “One had been in hospital for over a month, another for two, while they both had to be admitted to intensive care twice. I watched a patient being intubated and it’s a scene I still have nightmares about,” he says.
For many Covid patients, their ordeal does not end with their discharge from hospital. The longer they spend in hospital, the longer their recovery.
“When I started walking in the clinic it was as if I were doing it for the first time. Two people had to hold me up and I felt like a toddler. I have no words to thanks them,” says Emmanouilidis. In the first few weeks after being discharged, he had to spend two hours a day exercising to increase his muscle mass and another hour walking around the house to strengthen his legs.
For Paiteris’ younger son, the recovery has been even harder as the virus affected his nervous system and he still needs help getting around the house and has lost some mobility in one of his arms. “You can’t know what this virus is going to do; it blindsides you,” he says. “You don’t know how it’s going to strike; it’s sneaky.”