2020 was set to be a year of new adventures. After just over a decade of studying, performing and teaching in Melbourne, I had decided to shake things up a little and push myself into new career territory. In February I relocated to London to join my partner who is a member of the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

Some of the opportunities I had lined up included a BBC Radio 4 internship, a significant tour to America with my ensemble Rubiks, representing Australia as an Australian Artistic Associate at the Classical:NEXT Conference in Rotterdam and many other performance commitments and opportunities.

Just before leaving in February, I performed in the Asia TOPA Festival, giving the Australian premiere of a work from Deborah Cheetham’s Woven Song Collection; a wonderful collaboration between Rubiks Collective, Short Black Opera and Indian tabla master Ashis Sengupta. The overall project saw three internationals join us from Singapore, India and Japan. If this performance would have been a matter of weeks later, this would not have been possible.

I arrived in London in mid-February and began immediately working with the Arts Council of England as an Artistic Quality Assessor. I was thrilled with this new opportunity which enabled me to travel across England assessing the artistic output of their funded organisations. I felt refreshed and inspired.

However, by mid-March this feeling had changed. I was continually waking to panicked messages from family and friends in Australia, telling me about the latest restrictions back home and urging me to get on a flight before all of the airlines shut down. It all felt quite surreal as the UK was as this stage conducting business as normal, albeit with a few extra government press conferences. This sense of urgency coming from Australia was a little confusing to process when I couldn’t see it directly around me.  

We eventually decided that maybe it would be worth heading home. It was becoming clear that my partner’s orchestra would not be going back to a normal schedule any time soon. I was hesitant as I had so many incredible opportunities lined up, however he managed to convince me that these opportunities were all about to disappear, and of course he was absolutely right.

The flight home felt like we were on a mission. Heathrow was only allowing passengers inside the terminal who had a flight within the next few hours. The departures board had a total of four flights running for the day, alongside hundreds of cancelled flights. There were multiple health screenings, temperature checks and of course self-isolation at the other end. We arrived in Sydney just two days before hotel quarantine was enforced. We partitioned off the family home so we could appropriately isolate ourselves from others in the house. That night was the best sleep, as is often the case after a long-haul flight.

The next day, it all began. We both noticed we had dull headaches and a slightly tight feeling in the chest. At this point in time the general advice for Covid-19 symptoms was to look out for a fever and a dry cough, neither of which we had. We weren’t too worried thinking we were most likely just feeling jetlagged.

The next day these symptoms were still present, and I was beginning to feel achy in my legs. We decided it would probably be wise to get tested. Lucky we did, as from then the symptoms continued to progress and doing anything other than lying in bed became a challenge. Sure enough, on what we now know as Day 4, that positive result came through. We were informed that we should remain isolated until declared symptom free by NSW Health and to go the ER immediately if symptoms became serious.

The next 31 days really were a roller-coaster. Initially, there was an immediate dip in my health with a couple of stronger days around Days 7 and 8, before deteriorating again.

As we were receiving daily telehealth calls to track our progress, I started keeping a loose symptom diary, of which I’m still tracking today. Here is an excerpt from Day 13:

Day 13: By far, the worst I’ve felt. Vomited early in the morning. Nauseous. Sinuses still aching. So weak, can barely lift my head up. Head is still pounding. Heart palpitating constantly. Still no taste or smell. Muscles stiff and aching all across my neck. Can barely keep my eyes open as the natural light is too intense. Considered whether I should be going to ER. Decided with family and medical consultation that if I can keep my fluids constant, I might be ok. Otherwise I will go.

From Day 13 I definitely began to improve, day by day being able to stay upright for longer, headaches gradually subsiding and eventually gaining back my taste and smell. By about Day 27 I felt almost normal, aside from a stubborn croaky throat. I managed to kick that after a few days and eventually…

Day 31: Declared symptom free! 

Even after receiving the all clear to re-enter the world, I still gave it a few days before going for my first walk outside. After such an ordeal, it really felt like I couldn’t be too careful.

I would say it took at least eight weeks until I felt entirely like myself. As someone who exercises regularly, pre-Covid I could comfortably run 6-8km without a problem. This took about 3 months to build back up. For a long time, exercise made me feel nauseous and I fatigued very easily. I also found I was still feeling the odd headache. Here is an excerpt from my symptom diary, three months after being declared symptom free:

2/7 Sore gland in left hand side of jaw line.

3/7 Sore spot in left thigh and achy legs. Throat scratchy.

5/7 Achy right gland and down the neck. Occasionally feel it behind right ear.

7/7 Dull headache. Sore shoulders

8/7 Headache and knots in back continue. Right sinus blocked in morning.

9/7 Headache and knots in back continue. Right sinus slightly blocked.

11/7 Very slight irritation in glands along jaw and under chin

This was an unusually frequent patch of symptoms. I am now only recording about two days of very mild symptoms a month.  

I would say those first 13 days were the most intense part of the infection. The most interesting sensation I noticed was a sensation that the virus was literally moving around my body. It felt like it picked a new spot each day. One day I would feel it strongly in my legs with aches and heaviness and then the next day it would be in my sinuses with all of the pain focused there. The next day undoubtedly, I would experience a new symptom in a completely different part of my body. 

Across the 31 days I had all symptoms imaginable, however funnily enough my breathing never really worried me. With 20 years of serious flute playing under my belt, I have wondered whether this had any reason as to why my breathing was never comprised. Around Day 6 I was feeling slightly stronger and did try to play my flute. This of course was a stupid thing to do. I could not blow anything resembling a normal phrase, needing to take roughly 70% more breaths than normal. I also realised that it was quite foolish to be breathing into my instrument whilst being infected with the virus so I didn’t play again until I was entirely well.

My flute playing is completely back to normal now, which is a giant relief. I feel good these days although I am just as cautious as everyone about trying to avoid reinfection. Here’s hoping to a good dose of antibodies keeping me safe for a while and a vaccine for us all in the not too distant future.

Tamara Kohler

ASPAH Administrator