Surviving COVID

A remarkable story of survival against the odds features on the cover of the latest edition of Connect’s Scottish Dental magazine. Professor Grant McIntyre spent 128 days in hospital, 50 of them in a coma, after contracting COVID-19.

Grant, the Clinical Director for the Hospital Dental Service in NHS Tayside, recalls feeling unwell at a meeting in early March where he and colleagues discussed local plans for a response to the SARS-CoV-2 virus that had spread from China, to Iran and then Europe.

“As that week progressed, I lost my appetite, lost my sense of smell, was feeling increasingly rundown and, for the first time in 27 years, was unable to go to work.” He was twice admitted to Ninewells Hospital in Dundee – and discharged. Grant has no memory of being admitted for a third time, on 31 March, as he drifted in and out of consciousness.

“What I do remember from then is, during the night, having a very bizarre ‘out-of-body’ experience where I was floating above the bed looking at a lifeless body below. When I realised it was me, I suddenly tried to pull myself together. I don’t know if it was an illusion or not, but I realised I was in serious trouble at this point and sat up in bed and tried to focus on breathing for the rest of the night.”

Grant was put on a CPAP [continuous positive airway pressure] ventilator and showed initial signs of improvement. Then, his body “crashed”.

The intensive care team at Ninewells decided to transfer him to the Royal Infirmary in Aberdeen, home to one of only two centres in the UK to offer extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO), in which the patient’s blood is circulated through an artificial lung and back into the bloodstream. During this time, he suffered multi-organ failure as he was hit by a ‘cytokine storm’, in which the body’s immune system attacks its own cells and tissues rather than fighting off the virus.

After 42 days of the ECMO treatment, however, he was able to be transferred back to Ninewells.

‘I had this vision of a python trying to wrap itself around my chest and kill me’

His physical recovery was underway, but his psychological battle was just beginning. He didn’t know where he was, or who he was. “I began to have some rather strange, and perhaps unhealthy, thoughts,” he said. “The walls and the ceiling appeared to be moving inwards and outwards. Lying there, I started to see animals coming out of the ceiling. I had this constant vision of a python trying to wrap itself around my chest and kill me.”

By this time, he had been given a tracheotomy. From a nearby radio, news of the murder of George Floyd by police in America drifted into his consciousness. “I became convinced that the tracheotomy was a knee on my neck. I couldn’t make the distinction between those who were there trying to help me and what I imagined was happening to me.”

Gradually, though, his condition improved and when he was able to speak, his first words were to the medical team thanking them for saving his life.

Grant was discharged on 6 August, with the doctors advising him to take at least a year off work. Incredibly, he set himself a target of beginning a phased return by this Christmas. Colleagues provided him with 3D models, handpieces and orthodontic appliances to help him in his rehabilitation.

He tells Scottish Dental magazine: “I’ve had to relearn how to breathe, to stand, to walk – I haven’t managed to run yet – so I’m comfortable with the fact that I have to relearn dentistry. I like a challenge.”

The photographs for the feature were taken by Mark Jackson, who commented: “Grant was great to work with. He gave me plenty of time – I wanted to chat to him before I got the cameras out, just to create a relaxed atmosphere.”

Will Peakin, editor of Scottish Dental, said: “Grant’s story is extraordinary. The time he took to share his ordeal, and his deeply reflective approach to the experience, is testament to the dedication shown by the profession generally.”

Ann Craib, Sales and Events Manager at Scottish Dental, added: “As 2020 draws to a close, we’d like to thank the profession and industry for all their support and we’re looking forward to working with them in 2021 as we all move on from an incredibly challenging year.”

‘Surviving COVID’, Scottish Dental magazine, December 2020 / January 2021