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Patient story: Father and son survive coronavirus as dad takes part in COVID-19 research

As a former officer with the Metropolitan Police, Alan Mitchell was perhaps used to feeling scared. He has been in a variety of pressurised and dangerous situations over his 29-year career.

But he was never more scared than when coronavirus left him on a hospital ventilator, fighting for his life.

Alan, who was enrolled in a clinical trial while he was on the ventilator, said: “The doctors advised me to say goodbye to my family. I called my wife and we just cried.”

On 29th March, 57-year-old Alan was feeling weak and his blood pressure was very low, to add to a persistent cough and high temperature. His 11-year-old daughter Laura had suffered a cough in the days leading up to his hospital admission but had shaken it off without any further problems. Alan’s wife Lisa called him an ambulance to take him to Broomfield Hospital, in the Essex city of Chelmsford.

Alan, who lives in nearby Howe Green, explained: “I was admitted, given fluids to bring my blood pressure up. I still wasn’t feeling quite right, but the doctors said it would take a while for me to feel better. I was discharged the next day.”

Alan returned home confident he would recover quickly. But over the next day or so, he began to feel unwell again. His sickness was punctuated by a call from a hospital doctor, who told him that he had tested positive for coronavirus and should his condition worsen, he should return to hospital.

Alan was still having trouble breathing to the extent that once again he collapsed in his front room. Again, the ambulance came. This second time however, the situation was much graver.

Shortly after Alan was readmitted to Broomfield on 31st March, he was given heart-breaking advice by doctors. Within a few hours, he was advised to say goodbye to his family. He was then put on a ventilator in the intensive care unit.

“My wife and I had so much to say to each other but no words with which to really say them,” Alan explained. “I was really frightened.”

While Alan was on the ventilator, he was signed up to the RECOVERY trial. The study, supported by the NIHR, aims to compare a range of potential treatments for coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, against standard care with no treatment. Alan’s level of care was not affected by his participation in the trial and he gave his full consent to participate in it once he regained consciousness in intensive care.

After a few days on the ventilator, Alan began to try to breathe for himself, trying to overide the support of the machine. When he came around, he was strongly advised by doctors that he should stay in intensive care for a few more days, but Alan wanted to go back onto a ward.

As he was still recovering from coronavirus, he was placed in a side room off a ward. It was the first time he was able to speak to his wife in some days. Despite being conducted over the phone due to hospital restrictions, it was an emotional reunion.

“How do you encapsulate being able to speak to your family again after that? Being able to hear my family’s voices again was wonderful,” said Alan. “One of the first things my wife told me was that my son was coming into the same hospital that day with suspected coronavirus as well!”

Son Ed, 24, joined Alan in the same ward – in fact, in opposite beds - a few days after Alan was moved onto a coronavirus frailty ward to continue his recuperation. Ed was given antibiotics, breathing exercises and oxygen to aid his recovery. He did not take part in any research study, though he was never formally diagnosed with coronavirus.

“I would tell Ed to stay upbeat, to do his breathing exercises. We supported each other,” Alan explained.

Ed would later be transferred to another ward for a short time; but they were both discharged on the same day, travelling home to be greeted by a relieved Lisa.

Alan, who is currently recovering at home as he still has bouts of coughing and some shortness of breath, said: “I just have to listen to my body so that I can manage my recovery.

“I feel very lucky to still be here, having survived a world-changing illness and I received great care from all the staff at the hospital. An extraordinary thing has happened to me, so I’m very happy to be able to talk about it. It was also my first encounter with a clinical trial, which is something I had never considered before. But now I want to help in any way I can.”

Tracey Camburn, Lead Research Nurse and Director of Research and Development at Broomfield Hospital, said: “RECOVERY is the world’s largest randomised clinical trial of potential coronavirus treatments in the UK, supported by the NIHR, as part of the race to find a treatment.

“We used the research nurses to help undertake COVID research, so we were not only one of the first sites to open, but also the staff were ready to recruit patients from day one.

“The intensive care staff and respiratory doctors were involved with RECOVERY from the moment it was approved and were pivotal in identifying patients. Surgeons were also involved in taking consent on behalf of patients who were ventilated and unable to give it, as well as discussing the trial with patients’ relatives. 

“Definitive results on whether the treatments are safe and effective could arrive by June and, if positive, they could potentially benefit hundreds of thousands of people worldwide.”

To find out more about coronavirus research studies, visit the NIHR’s Be Part of Research website.

International Clinical Trials Day takes place every year on 20 May. The day celebrates the anniversary of the first clinical trial by James Lind in 1747 into the causes of scurvy on board the HMS Salisbury.