The vivid hallucinations of Covid-19. Near-death experiences remain a potent pandemic presence from a twilight zone.

21 July 2020 By Paul Martin

The well-respected pioneer in healthcare information technology from London was admitted to Royal Free Hospital on 22nd March – the day before lockdown – and endured five days in the Intensive Care Unit on a ventilator, in a twilight zone between life and death.  He had no pre-existing medical conditions. 

Wiseman in better days

His dreams and hallucinations while undergoing ‘ventilation’ are, he says, as vivid as any nightmare.  According to psychologists, these are common amongst COVID-19 patients.

“Being a patient in an ICU is almost always a traumatic experience,” says psychoanalyst Caroline Garland, who founded the Unit for the Study of Trauma and its Aftermath at the Tavistock Clinic in London, and wrote the seminal textbook on the subject, ‘Understanding Trauma’.

“Laurie had some extraordinary visions: part-hallucination (a disturbance of perception), part-delusion (a disturbance of belief) and part-dream. The kind of dream in which we try hard to make sense of life,” she told correspondent.world.

“He will never forget them: they are now a part of his waking life.

“Recovery from a traumatic event takes a long time, and some serious internal work.

“One of the complicating factors in recovery can be (though not always) the
presence of guilt: I am alive, but so many others died. Laurie is a survivor [who] must keep his fierce pleasure in once more having his life, muted; perhaps for some, this must even be kept under wraps.”

It has taken courage for Wiseman to speak openly to correspondent.world about the experience. 

“This is the strange reality of the Covid-19 illness and its treatments: your psyche and the drugs lift you away from the immediate pain into alternative worlds full of potent images, sounds and voices,” Wiseman says. 

He recalls little from the 12 days he spent in the ICU unit of the Royal Free – except the hallucinations.  

“I had arrived into A&E just before lockdown with a cough and overwhelming exhaustion. Within a day of admission, I had collapsed. 

“My memory of these moments is either hazy or been wiped entirely.  It seems I had been moved from the 12th floor ward into the ICU on March 24th.  Until the end of the month, I remained in an induced coma, apparently hovering between life and death.”

Four months on, Wiseman is now recovering well at home.  But the hallucinations persist.  Many patients (including himself) are seeking help in how to cope with the aftermath of Covid-19, particularly these psychological after-effects.

“Laurie’s case has had a happy ending; for others it may be more difficult,” psychoanalyst Garland explains.

“Anyone who is feeling continually low, with no pleasure to be found in the life the marvellous NHS has given him or her back again, needs to go and talk to someone about it.

These, in his own words, are Wiseman’s recollections and reflections on his pandemic visions.

*****************

I could see my funeral.  Socially distanced, my wife and two children were standing in a circle around the coffin – in mourning and alone.  And I could hear their sobs.

My internal world had become the only safe place I could inhabit.  That world was as real as the hospital bed on which I was lying.  My body was connected to tubes and monitors; but my mind, set free, was moving into new realms.  

Soon after my entry into ICU [Intensive Care Unit], I imagined I had been transported to a converted wing of a smart hotel in Chelsea which was now used by the NHS for intensive care.  Groups of cousins and well-wishers were offering me morsels of exotic food.  And the moment I consumed them, I would cough uncontrollably. 

Today, I can still see and smell the food; I can also witness the staff, in full protective wear, floating around my bed in Chelsea, their figures set against the backdrop of expensive wall coverings in one of the best suites in town.  My body was consumed in pain; I was intent on dying at that point and curling up on the floor.  But the doctors continued their endless attention, as they appeared to drift  around my bed, dispensing care with a lightness of touch and barely a sound.

I found myself back in North London, on the ICU ward at the Royal Free. There was a knock at the door.  A slightly portly 30-year-old man with an ageing rucksack smiled at me, as he stood at the guarded entrance to the ICU. 

He had come to write my obituary, he told me, with an eager look in his eyes, as if I would make a good story for his newspaper about an early death from the virus.   He was persistent; he would not leave without his story.  I failed to oblige! But his smiling face and the sight of his grubby rucksack are imprinted on my memory.

It was now Friday night.  I could see an elderly rabbi in the bed next to me.  His passionate followers were permitted into ICU for a brief visit.  They overstayed their welcome.  They began to sing, their voices forming harmonies that had no end point.  They were trying to bring their leader back to life – or sending him into the next one with appropriate accompaniment. 

Suddenly, as I lay in stasis with no voice, I wanted to join in.  At which point, the ICU consultant turfed the followers out, saying they were endangering their leader’s life by staying any longer. 

Of course, in reality no visitors were allowed in the ICU – ever, under any circumstances. I only became aware of this after discharge.

Then there was a famous person’s arrival from Essex.  I could see the private ambulance pull up to A&E at the Royal Free; a celebrity footballer or athlete was writhing in agony, choking uncontrollably on floor of the ambulance. 

He was moved to an ICU bed at the far end of the ward.  As he was being treated that day, his employer from the USA called in and asked about his progress – I could hear it was a lady from the “Lennox Lewis Academy” making the call.  As she enquired about the famous sportsman’s health, the woman phoning in was singing the blues.

At the same time, I could see the paparazzi appearing at the only window in ICU, desperate for that one image of my fellow-patient inside the hospital.  

The next morning, he was cured magically. His cough had disappeared, and this kindly athlete was offering me a coffee — which I had to refuse graciously, as the tubes down my oesophagus were not yet ready for any warm brews. 

A few days after I left hospital, I told my son this tale of the celebrity sportsman.  I said it must have made headlines in at least the local press.  My son looked on blankly.  What sportsman, when?  

My hallucinations and dreams seemed as real as the hand of the ICU consultant, Jim Buckley, who told me, as he was squeezing my palm at the end of my 12-day stay in intensive care, that I would live.  “No BS, you’re going to be okay.” And I trusted him; Jim possessed the face and manner of complete authority, even concealed behind his mask and gown.

This assurance, at least, was not a hallucination.

A full 26 days after admission, including a stay on a ‘normal’ hospital ward to rebuild my strength, I was fully conscious and did not need oxygen support.   

On Thursday afternoon I was told great news: I could leave.  It was 4pm and I could see the clock ticking down.  I was getting very frustrated, as the clock showed 7pm and the transport contingent had not arrived.  I knew I could not walk unaided; I was breathless and exhausted, and I would need to be lifted into my home.

The paramedics arrived with the wheelchair at 7.30pm. I was lifted into the ambulance at 7.50pm and at precisely 8pm I arrived on our street.

Neighbours and friends on their doorsteps were clapping enthusiastically or banging saucepans with wooden spoons. Unaware of the Thursday evening ritual to thank the NHS for their bravery, I thought they were assembled to greet me !

Still wearing my NHS pyjamas, I emerged from the rear of the ambulance and waved at the crowd in a daze of gratitude and tears.  The applause turned into cheers – and I could see my wife and family for the first time in 26 days.  

Hesitantly and carefully, I breathed a sigh of relief.  

I had to reassure myself, time and again, that this was not another hallucination. 

I was home – and alive.

Laurie Wiseman outside the Royal Free
Wiseman on a trip back – weeks after he left it – to the Royal Free Hospital
where he so nearly died.

PS: On September 21 Wiseman told correspondent.world he was now riding his bicycle again, and felt 95 per cent normal.

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