"Six months ago, only a few of us had heard of COVID-19. Now it dominates our lives, and medical science is struggling to catch up." - Dr Chris van Tulleken
With filming finishing up at the end of June, this BBC documentary could not be more up-to-date. Cameras followed twins, doctors Chris and Xand van Tulleken, at work and at home during COVID-19 lockdown in England.
An infectious diseases doctor at the world-leading UCL Hospital in London, Chris (who you would know as one of the presenters of Trust Me, I’m a Doctor) is asked to return to the wards for the first time in ten years. He wants to understand what the virus is doing to our bodies and why it’s so difficult to treat. But he confesses to being nervous about returning to the front lines after such a lengthy break.
"I've spent a lot of the last ten years making television programs and doing research in a lab, a long way from patients. Medicine is really complicated, and you very quickly forget it and that's what I feel nervous about."
Through one of his patients, 80-year-old retired taxi driver Richard, Chris quickly learns how unpredictable the virus can be. He also meets Florentino, one of the sickest patients in ICU. Florentino’s lungs and kidneys are being artificially supported and his immune system seems to have turned in on itself.
At home, Chris attempts to reassure his wife Dinah, who is seven months pregnant, that she’s no more likely to get infected than anyone else.
Meanwhile, Xand, a specialist in public health, contracted COVID-19 in March, and he remains tired and sluggish. He’s also developed an irregular heart beat which he suspects is part of the virus’s aftermath. Throughout filming, he faces his own serious setbacks in health, including landing back in hospital after he suffers an arrhythmia. In one literally heart-stopping scene, we witness doctors restart Xand’s heart through cardioversion.
"The only way Xand's heart rhythm can be returned to normal is by giving him a huge electric shock that will stop his heart completely and allow it to start naturally."
Xand is keen to examine the impact COVID-19 is having outside hospitals, namely, on the UK’s most vulnerable, and help where he can. He visits Philia Lodge Care Home in Peterborough, one of the first care homes in the UK to suffer a coronavirus outbreak and where a third of their residents died.
We follow the progress of Richard, Florentino and Xand himself, and meet other recovering patients in the St Pancras rehab centre. Stroke doctor, Dr Arvind Chandratheva, and mental health worker Chuck, also give their insights – Chuck, like Xand, is recovering from the virus and suffered a stroke soon after contracting COVID-19.
Meeting these people and hearing their stories, what becomes evident is how differently the virus reacts in different people, some recovering against all expectations, and others suffering debilitating consequences. As we follow Xand himself on his bumpy ride to recovery, the documentary is that much more intimate.
Chris and Xand walk us through the day-to-day reality of the virus, reminding us just how much we rely on our healthcare workers. They are always inquisitive, always learning and always ready to help.
Surviving the Virus: My Brother and Me premieres on SBS at 8.20pm on Monday 31 August. The documentary will be available at SBS On Demand from that date.