Steve White knows he is one of the lucky ones. He has no strength to twist open a bottle of milk, feels numb in his right foot and can barely walk more than five minutes without feeling breathless, but after an astonishing 92 days in hospital battling Covid-19, he's back at home and is humbled and grateful.
"I had so many people rooting for me and I knew I had to work my guts out and do everything I could to get better," says White, a dispatch worker from Bromyard in Herefordshire.
The 56-year-old father of two went into hospital on March 19, just a few days before the national lockdown was imposed. He had Type 2 diabetes and an underactive thyroid.
"It was a Monday morning and I was at work and I had a bad cough and felt weak and I knew if I had this Covid thing, I had to get home," recalls White, who also taught jive-dancing part-time and cared for his wife, Liz, 58, a dementia sufferer, at home. "By the next day I had a temperature and was struggling to catch my breath and my stepdaughter Lorna called an ambulance. I remember the paramedic telling me I had Covid, then being blue-lighted to hospital and that's about it."
The next 43 days are a total blank to White as doctors at Hereford County Hospital put him on a ventilator and in an induced coma. But his daughter Charlotte Metcalfe remembers the anguish of those days very clearly as she received twice-daily updates from the consultants and nurses about her dad's condition.
"Every day they told me he was progressively getting worse and was very poorly," says Metcalfe, 33, a student nurse. "He was having seizures, his kidneys were packing up, and no medication was working. We had to trust his carers as we couldn't go into see him. It was a nightmare."
After 26 days, Metcalfe and her brother Callum were asked to come in and meet the consultants. It was a conversation both will never forget.
"They told us Dad had a 1 per cent chance of survival and wasn't going to make it," recalls Metcalfe. "Even if he did, by some miracle, make it, we were told he'd never be able to care for himself again and would have no quality of life."
End of life care was discussed but Callum was unequivocal about not going down this route.
"I was adamant and forced them to keep him on the ventilator, not allowing them to take Dad's last breath," says Callum, 29, an electrician. "I knew Dad would want to keep fighting and would rather die trying before being told he has to go. He was a fighter and we had to buy him this bit of extra time. If I was in his position, I knew I'd want that."
Thinking he had just hours to live, Metcalfe readied herself for a final phone call to her dad, choosing her words carefully.
"I could hear the nurse crying as she was holding the phone.
"It was heartbreaking to think I could be speaking to him for the last time."
Metcalfe also played him a swing song – Missing You – to convey the sentiments of his friends and the nursing staff read out emails and messages of strength and support from his wider community.
Callum, meanwhile, turned to prayer. "My partner and I had been through two devastating miscarriages in the past three years and I was fed up of the bad luck," he says. "I prayed every single night for Dad's recovery, even though I wasn't particularly a believer. I also joined in with a weekly group lighting of candles organised by his friends, to send him good thoughts."
Incredibly, within the next 48 hours, White's condition stabilised.
"Did he hear my voice in that final phone call? Did he subliminally know all his friends were rooting for him?" asks Metcalfe. "I don't know but it seemed to work."
Day by day, there were tiny improvements. Then 43 days after he was first placed on the ventilator, White had improved enough to be brought out of his induced coma.
He recalls opening his eyes to find a group of consultants leaning over him, marvelling at this Covid miracle.
"I felt so scared as there were four sets of eyes peering through masks down at me and they were gowned up from head to toe," recalls White.
Dave – the nurse with him that day – helped to calm him down. "He was brilliant with me, telling me where I was and explaining how I had Covid and was making a recovery," says White.
He had a tracheostomy – a surgical incision in the front of his neck for a tube to help him breathe – and had to learn to communicate with the nursing staff through sign signals while still being ventilated. In the meantime, phone conversations with friends and family were frustratingly one-way.
"It was amazing to see him on Facetime and talk to him but he'd tire very quickly and the conversations barely lasted a few minutes," says Metcalfe.
Then just a few days later, the doctors placed a speaking valve on his tracheostomy. Metcalfe was at work when the phone rang.
"I heard this quiet, croaky voice whisper – 'hello' – and I knew it was my dad," she says. "I screamed 'What?!" and I was completely overwhelmed. It was so emotional to finally hear him talk after so long."
White was taken fully off his ventilator on May 21 – 63 days after he was first sedated – and Callum and Metcalfe were allowed to visit in the small garden by the Intensive Care unit and lay eyes on their beloved father again.
"'We couldn't hug him or touch him but it was very special to see for ourselves how he was doing," she says. "He'd lost loads of weight and had these thin, chicken arms and legs but we were expecting that."
White was incredibly emotional too.
"I had to try to hold the tears back," he recalls. "I've been divorced and my kids haven't had it easy and it was so great to see them. They've been champions for me the whole way through." For the next few weeks, Steve was set on getting better.
"I'd get phone calls and messages every day from friends and family and they made me feel brilliant," he says. "Every single morning I had more fight in me. I wanted to get out of the hospital and get back home. All these people had been cheering me on and I couldn't let them down. I had to work hard."
Although White had no recollection himself of his dice with death, there was one day in ITU when he thought it was all over.
"My whole body had been slathered with cream because my skin was so scaly and my heart rate went up a bit and suddenly, there were seven or eight consultants gathered around my bed and I was petrified," he says.
"My dad had died of a heart attack at 56 – the same age as me – and I kept telling myself not to close my eyes for fear that would be it. It turned out they couldn't get the heart monitor pads to stick because of the cream but it made me realise how far I'd come and how I didn't want to die."
After making steady improvements, White was sent to a normal ward at Hereford, then to Leominster Community Hospital for intense physiotherapy, where he pushed past all the goals set for him and left – to the resounding cheers and clapping of all the staff – after 92 days.
"My dad's a legend," says Callum. "He says it's down to the care and support but he did it himself. He defied the odds and is an inspiration."
White's at home now, feeling better every day.
"I wake up every morning thinking it's going to be the best day of my life," he says. "I'm walking now and I'm building up my muscle strength slowly but it's going to take time. I can't wait to see my wife, Liz, who went into a nursing home when I was in hospital, and get back to teaching jive-dancing. If it weren't for the NHS and my family and friends, I wouldn't be here. I'm one of the lucky ones."