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Published: 11 July 2024

The miracle of Margate

The miracle of Margate, Sam with patient AlanWhen Alan Finch woke after nearly two months in a life-saving coma, he’d survived round one of his fight for life. But there was so much more to come. Paralysed from the neck down and unable to speak, Julia Rogers found out how NHS teams helped him regain his life, one step at a time.

When Alan Finch walked out of hospital after 248 days to the sound of rapturous applause from the staff who helped save his life, it was a momentous step in his recovery. Known as the ‘miracle of Margate’ for his close-call with death, the 51-year-old was not expected to survive his battle with Covid-19, but thanks to brilliant NHS teams, after seven weeks and two days – he woke up from his induced coma and his recovery began. “I still find it all difficult to believe that I survived, but I’m so very thankful to all the NHS teams,” he said.

‘I have my life… I can’t thank the NHS enough’

Alan was working as a carer for adults with learning disabilities, when he tested positive for covid in January 2021 – just days after the third lockdown was announced. He said: “I felt well, but I admit testing positive scared me.” After returning home to partner Claire, 41, who also tested positive, Alan continued to feel well and was coming to the end of his 14 days in isolation, when he collapsed in the bathroom. “I don’t remember anything that happened next,” said Alan. Claire phoned 111 for advice and sat up watching him through the night, but when blotches appeared on his stomach and arms suggesting sepsis, an ambulance crew raced to his Ramsgate home. Claire said: “I remember seeing him going away in the ambulance and that was the last time I saw him for three weeks. Alan called me the next morning. He said, ‘don’t panic, but they are going to put me into a coma’. Then the line went dead.” Claire phoned the hospital every day to check on Alan. Three weeks later, doctors feared the worst and told her to come in to say goodbye.

“I sat by his bedside in the intensive care unit, and I swear he squeezed my hand when I said my goodbye and told him I loved him,” said Claire. There were ups and down over the months that followed, but over two weeks in March, Alan was slowly weaned off the cocktail of medication keeping him in an induced coma. Thanks to the incredible efforts of the teams at the Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother Hospital in Margate, Alan had survived – despite having a tracheostomy to force air into his lungs, multiple resuscitations, 16 infections and a heartbeat that, at times, had slowed to 16 beats per minute. Alan said: “I remember waking up and the doctor saying ‘welcome to the world’. I was paralysed from the neck down because of the muscle wastage of being in a bed so long and had a tracheostomy, so I couldn’t speak, but I was alive.” Alan had to learn to speak, move and walk again. At first, he wasn’t even strong enough to lift paper, but after four weeks of physiotherapy, Alan lifted his arm a couple of inches off the bed. And that’s when teams from Kent Community Health NHS Foundation Trust stepped in to support him – with twice-weekly physio from the Community Rehabilitation Team and the Thanet Covid Recovery Team helping Alan learn to live and minimise the damage Covid had inflicted on his lungs.

Alan, who was left with type two respiratory failure, said: “I had a weekly visit from physiotherapy and my legs started to get stronger. I was on oxygen 24/7 – just standing up was exhausting. I had a BiPAP machine to force air into my lungs as I had developed sleep apnoea, used a walking frame and stick for a while to get around the flat and a wheelchair if going out, but eventually I grew stronger and could walk to the end of the road and back. KCHFT’s Pulmonary Rehabilitation Service offers a six-week programme for people with moderate to severe lung disease to improve exercise tolerance and help improve their quality of life. It includes exercise and education for patients, their partners and carers.

The miracle of Margate, Claire, Sam and patient AlanClinical Specialist Respiratory Physiotherapist Samantha Perry said: “We run tailor-made classes for people with respiratory problems and in the height of the pandemic ran a special class for people dealing with long covid. “Having a lung condition can be scary and when I first met Alan, he was naturally really fearful and wasn’t leaving his home very often. We supported him with small group based sessions, increasing his confidence and exercise slowly, so by the end he could walk with oxygen and complete his exercises at home.” Alan said: “I did the course twice, because I got so much out of it the first time. I went from walking 10 meters to 190 meters, thanks to the team.” Three years on from Covid, Alan feels like he’s getting his life back. He said: “I still use a wheelchair for going shopping and sometimes I use a walking frame, but I am no longer on oxygen 24/7. “I have my life and I’m 99 per cent where I should be. But the biggest news is I am now engaged to my Claire, who has stood beside me all this time and means the world to me. “It’s been a long journey to recovery since leaving hospital, but my aftercare has been fantastic – I can’t thank the NHS enough, you are all angels to me.”