Sheila McNally, a West Cork native now living in Paris, survived Covid-19 after an almost 2-month stay in hospital.
For “Poetry Day Ireland,” April 30, the “Irish in France Association”, IIF, asked members to post our favorite poems. Many did, giving us all wonderful words to reflect upon. I posted “Fear” by Maria McManus, a poet, playwright, and “cultural activist” originally from Enniskillen, currently living in Belfast.
The beautiful poem provoked many comments; Sheila McNally posted “I love it; it’s very appropriate to my present health state.” After I questioned her, she revealed that she was recovering from Covid-19 and just home from almost two months battling for her life in hospital.
Even though still very weak, Sheila told me she’d like to share her story, and that perhaps her words and experience of coming out the other side of a real-life Covid-19 nightmare might help others and give their families insight and hope.
Sheila was admitted to a clinic in the chic 8th area of Paris on the evening of 12 March for a sleeve gastrectomy, a fairly routine operation in France, recommended for shedding unwanted kilos that could become a health issue in the long term. She happily admitted herself to the clinic, joking with her children that she’d be delighted to finally have “a telly”. Like many culture-loving people living in France, she and her family live in a TV-free home. Prior to the surgery, she had undergone rigorous medical tests to ensure she was in perfect health for the operation, to be performed, the following day, “Friday the 13th of March." Everything seemed to be in order.
However, very soon after her operation, it was obvious something was amiss. She felt sicker than she’d ever felt in her life, and sometime after spending the night of Friday 13 in intensive care, she was urgently transferred to a hospital in Aubervilliers, North of Paris, where an operating theatre was available for a follow-up emergency gastric surgery. Sheila’s surgeon followed her and operated on her a second time.
In the wake of the second intervention, there were again further complications - her temperature soared and couldn’t be stabilized. We do not know where Sheila caught Covid-19, at the clinic or at the Aubervilliers hospital, where she ended up spending weeks in complete confinement, prohibited from seeing her family and friends, during the hardest chapter of her life.
Apart from acute pain resulting from internal bleeding from her gastric surgeries and having her back punctured to drain her Covid-19 infected lungs, what Sheila found the most horrific were the nightmares she had in what was to be the loneliest period of her life. Sheila is used to being with her husband Pascal and their three grown children and is a very social person, with many friends and a busy successful career. Her whole life had been completely turned upside down; stuck in intensive care, with only medical staff, kitted out in the space like medical protective clothing for interacting with the seriously Covid-19 ill, for intermittent company.
She had a lot of time to think when she was conscious enough to formulate thoughts; sometimes a few snippets of poetry that Michael Healy, her Irish friend and a “rock” of support, sent her would drift in and out of her mind. Outside of her family and very close friends, few knew she was ill. She thought about her mother and family in Ireland, she hoped the McNally family house wouldn’t be burnt down with all the holy candles she knew they were burning night and day. Most of all she thought of Pascal and her children.
She will always remember the dedication of the French medical staff, stretched beyond their limits by Covid-19. Hospitalization is far from normal at the moment. At one point after her emergency hospital transfer, her phone was misplaced, and after the emergency surgery, she was somehow lost in a system completely overwhelmed by the pandemic. Her distraught family couldn’t locate where she was for a couple of days, the time it took the overworked staff to find a way to contact them.
Her surgeon visited her on a regular basis, sometimes twice a day. When he visited her on a Sunday night at 21h, Sheila knew the hour was grave. She is not a woman you’d lie to; he was candid, her condition was critical. However, he never gave up on her. He and his team were present and encouraging as they watched her fight and come out of the woods. He later told her he was convinced that her “fighting Irish spirit” was what pulled her through. Depleted after fighting the battle of her life, when she occasionally succumbed to the blues, he seemed to read her mind and berated her out of any temporary despondency.
Another chance encounter fueled Sheila’s determination to survive. An untactful member of the hospital staff had divulged to her the fate of the Covid-19 dead. She just couldn’t bear the thought of how the person described the bodies were put in plastic bags before being rapidly cremated, or quickly buried with only a couple of people alongside the undertakers to bid the Covid-19 victim farewell. She thought about her husband and children, about her 89-year-old mother back in West Cork, and knew she had to fight to avoid such a horrific image being etched on their memories. She vowed to herself that “there was no way she was going to be put in a plastic bag and thrown into a furnace.”
She thought about her life, how happy she’d been in France since she arrived at 21 as an au pair. How she’d studied the Philosophy of History at the Sorbonne and met Pascal and founded a family. She decided it just couldn’t all be over; there were too many spectacular sunrises and sunsets she wanted to see, picnics to be had, and she absolutely had to make it back to West Cork, to hold her mother in her arms. For Sheila it became mind over matter; she would survive.
She knows she’s very lucky; most people as gravely ill as she was don’t survive. Although out of the woods, it’s not easy, but as determined as ever, she says “I’m getting stronger every day."
She is currently “hospitalized at home” with nurses feeding her by tube morning and evening. She has also had to relearn how to walk and can manage a few steps around her apartment with the help of a walking aid. Her convalescence will probably take about 18 months.
Sheila, who has always been an empathic person, feels the surgeries and contracting Covid-19 and her lengthy hospital stay, apart from being completely harrowing and debilitating, were also extremely humbling. She hopes to be even more empathic, gentle and kind with the sick and handicapped as she herself moves slowly forward.
At 59, although she had the complications of two gastric operations before coming down with the killer virus, she is lucky that she was in excellent health before the surgeries, which she feels must have also contributed to her having the physical, as well as the mental, strength to pull through.
One of the things Sheila finds strength in is poetry and she now relates to the words of poems in a whole different way. Words of sorrow, of strength, of hope, of joy which she would have found aesthetically beautiful before her ordeal, after being through so much, have now taken on a whole new significance. Apart from the poem “Fear," the poems “Everything is Going to be All Right” by Derek Mahon and Elena Mikhalkova’s poem “Grandma once gave me a tip” provide remedial words on her road to recovery.
As I reach the end of this article Sheila has just texted me to say that she took a few steps without her walking aid today. Yet another victory for this strong, inspirational woman. Looking out her window, Sheila marvels at how unpolluted and clear the Parisian skyline has become since her lengthy hospital stay.
At the same time, in her Belfast living room, Maria McManus is writing out a handwritten manuscript of her poem to post to Sheila. Those words which resonated on the IIF site; one IIF member described “Fear” as “a chalice of tea," another as “such a salve in these strange times.”
Those words which so resonated with both Sheila, and I, and over which we got to virtually meet and I was given the enormous privilege of recounting her story of vanquishing Covid-19 and of having the courage and optimism “to go on.”
“Fear” by Maria McManus
Make a cup for fear.
Collect your tears and all the cruel rain,
and, some night, when earth is at its darkest,
those days of absent moon,
put the cup out in the open
overnight, underneath the stars.
In the morning,
Run your fingers across the flowers of its prayers
and drink from it –
a slave for the pain –
something for the cure.
Repeat as necessary.
Then, go on
 «Fear» by Maria McManus, in “Available Light” (Arlen House, 2018)
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