When theatre and film-maker Mary Moynihan got Covid-19, she expected she’d be over it in two weeks. She tellsabout the setbacks she encountered, how it’s changed her perspective and how her arts background is helping her bounce back
It is day 29 since Mary Moynihan was hit by Coronavirus, and she’s coming out of it, “slowly getting there”. It took her by surprise – not for nothing is it called a ‘novel’ disease, with doctors constantly emphasising its newness, its many unknown aspects.
For Moynihan – artistic director with Dublin-headquartered Smashing Times International Centre for the Arts and Equality – the virus struck suddenly and comprehensively on a Monday evening in mid-March.
“Within the space of an hour I had shivers and aches and pains, enough that I had to lie down. I instinctively knew this was something not normal.”
Next morning she felt the same and the coughing started, intermittent at first, hacking as the day progressed.
“It started to really distress my chest,” she recalls. By Wednesday, with chest pain and shortness of breath, she rang her GP who immediately told her get tested.
Moynihan, who has mild asthma (and so is considered to have an underlying condition), suffered a severe asthma attack five days into the illness. She rallied but a week later experienced what many others have reported: a staggering setback around day 11.
“I got very sick. By then I’d been prescribed antibiotics and steroids and I’d taken them. On the doctor’s instruction, we called an ambulance.
They said I had a high temperature and my oxygen levels had dropped very low. I was given oxygen and put on a ward for Covid-19 patients. I had my own room.
Discharged home quite quickly, she’d heard at some stage it’d take two weeks to recover. “So at a certain point I thought I should be getting over it and I thought maybe if I got a bit of exercise I’d feel better. I went for a walk but the minute I got home I just knew I shouldn’t have done it. I got the chest pain and shortness of breath again and it was severe enough that I had to go back to hospital,” says Moynihan, whose partner, Ruairi, got Covid-19 at the same time she did.
Their experience shows how the virus really is different for different people. “We started off the same but he got over it very quickly with mild symptoms.”
While Covid-19 inflamed muscles around her chest and lungs, Moynihan’s thankful it didn’t damage or heart or lungs, that she can breathe on her own and she didn’t get pneumonia. But it has surprised her by how tough an illness it is to fight.
She recalls one doctor calling it a ‘deathly’ illness. “I can see now how damaging it can be. I’m shocked by how much it can pull your system down.
I’d have considered myself very fit and healthy – I jog every week – but it was like something invaded my chest and was just all over it and was lodged there like lead. At times I found breathing so difficult.
All that’s gone now, but the heaviness in my chest isn’t. I’m out of breath after exertion – I can’t go upstairs without shortness of breath.”
For medics, Covid-19 is a stranger, a new entity, and Moynihan believes this has impacted on how they communicate with patients. “The sense you get is of a lot of unknowns about this illness and the doctors are quite open about that.
They engage in conversation with you, it’s more two-way – you’re telling them what’s going on – and they’re spending time with patients and asking loads of questions: ‘how did you get it?’ ‘What are your symptoms?’ And they’re saying ‘yes, maybe’ – it’s more speculative.”
Statistically, Moynihan’s down as a community case of transmission, but she wonders about a week-long severe illness her 19-year-old son got about two weeks before she contracted coronavirus.
“He was never tested for it and we were told he had tonsillitis. He had a high temperature and night sweats.
My doctor said it could have been tonsillitis – along with something else. That’s the only thing I can put my getting Covid-19 down to.
Her arts and theatre background helped on the tough nights when chest tightness caused her to panic.
“I realised this isn’t good for me, I knew about deep breathing, how it can help, and even though I couldn’t physically do it correctly, I went through the motions. It didn’t ease the symptoms but it helped me stay calm and get through it.”
Over the past few weeks, Moynihan has thought a lot about the process of creativity, how you have to let go and let art happen rather than forcing it. She sees parallels for coping with an illness like Coronavirus.
“It’s this idea of accepting what’s happening and not struggling too much. That doesn’t mean not fighting the illness but you try to have faith in the process and stay in the moment.”
Covid-19 has “definitely” made her aware of her own vulnerability – and everyone else’s.
“It has made me aware of what really matters,” says the mum of four whose ages range from 12 to 24.
“Life is so busy. Sometimes we’re like ships in the night. Sometimes, I put off or avoid doing the things that really matter.
Now I’ve made a promise to myself not to do that anymore.