When Jon Helm caught Covid-19 last year, he assumed it would clear up in a matter of weeks. But what started out as a short illness, turned into an ongoing battle with major physical and mental health issues that would leave him out of work for nearly 12 months.
The Cumbria firefighter, 48, who first began his service in Barrow-in-Furness in 1998, started suffering with breathlessness, an increased heart rate and a soaring temperature just before the first national lockdown.
“We all thought if you did get it, it would just be like a bad case of the flu and it would be over in two weeks. I just didn’t take it that seriously,” says Jon, who is a crew manager at his station. “Then when I got it, the symptoms were really bad. It was absolutely terrifying.”
Jon had previously been very fit, often running 10km in his spare time and having recently completed his mountain leader’s assessment in Snowdonia. But the virus meant his life transformed overnight and left him struggling to do basic daily tasks like make a drink and climb the stairs.
“There was one particular night when my symptoms got so bad… being a firefighter and knowing how difficult it is to identify houses that don’t have a house number on the front, I actually chalked a house number on the front door, knowing I’d likely need to phone an ambulance,” says Jon. “I genuinely didn’t think I was going to see through the night.”
After driving himself to hospital, Jon was eventually told he’d not only got Covid, but it had developed and scarred his lungs, in a similar way to pneumonia.
Being a father of two, he had to juggle his own deteriorating health with looking after his kids, aged 15 and eight, at the time – one of whom has autism and severe learning difficulties.
“After the two-week point I started to feel like I was improving – I was even hoping to go back to work. But one night I was sat at home and all the symptoms came back again, difficulty breathing, my heart rate going sky high, a temperature again,” recalls Jon.
“The whole process just kept happening from there, every two weeks. Just wave after wave after wave. It went on like that for three months. Then I finally started to feel like I was slowly recovering a bit.”
Overall, Jon lost around a stone and a half as he battled long Covid, but tried to keep a brave face on throughout for the sake of his kids – even pretending to them that he was just suffering with back pain.
“For some people, long Covid may not have as big an impact on their life, but when you’re a firefighter and you like to climb mountains on your days off, it becomes a massive impact,” says Jon. “A lot of people could go back to work if they have a desk-based job, or a job that isn’t reliant on having to pass a fitness assessment, but it’s so much more difficult for firefighters.”
Due to lockdown, Jon never considered that there would be support and help available to him.
He’d had previous experience with the Charity, having visited Harcombe House several times with his eldest son – offering both of them a week’s break to recoup – but when it came to his own health battle, it was his colleague who finally called our Support Line on his behalf. Jon was put in touch with a member of our physio team, who arranged a video consultation using our clinically approved Attend Anywhere system. It proved a lifeline in the months that followed.
“Since then it’s all been over video calls,” says Jon. “In the first session, emotion just overcame me and I broke down crying. That’s when I recognised in myself that it was more than the physical symptoms.
“I was initially booked in to go to Jubilee House, around October time, but it was put back with the increase in Covid again. I haven’t been yet, which was a massive setback for me at the time, but I’ve been having appointments and consultations with the physio throughout, which has been fantastic.
“I think having someone interested, who wanted to understand and be able to help, was amazing.”
Jon was also offered further welfare support, but he says he chose to focus on his physical and psychological recovery primarily.
“I can’t stress what a difference speaking to the Charity made to my life,” says Jon. “I was given some breathing exercises, which the physio would take me through over a video call, but really it’s more about having someone there that understands and wants to help.”
Thanks to the support he’s received, Jon has now been able to return to work this year, while he continues with his physio work via video calls. And while the impact his illness has had on his mental health has been huge, Jon has found speaking with other people dealing with long Covid, to be of benefit.
Keen to understand the experiences of those struggling with long Covid and how the Charity can develop its services to meet their needs, Jon was invited to attend a small virtual group facilitated by the Charity.
“At the moment there’s myself and two other beneficiaries,” says Jon. “Just being able to speak to likeminded people, and share experiences, has meant we can help each other, give each other tips and build each other’s confidence. I now see that as a major transition for me.
“I’d encourage anyone in the fire community to reach out to the Charity for help, should they need it, they’ve been wonderful for me. A lot of people are unaware of how much the Charity can provide and help with. It’s life-changing.”
If something is affecting your physical or mental health, or social wellbeing, get in touch with us. Call our Support Line on 0800 389 8820 or make an enquiry online.