'It's changed my life' - Sheffield Long Covid service receives over 1,000 referrals in first year

Long Covid sufferer Chris Leffler is one of more than 1,200 patients who have been supported by The Sheffield Post Covid Rehabilitation Hub in its first year, as Laura Reid found out.

A year ago Chris Leffler couldn’t walk down his street without becoming breathless and tired. Looking after his then one-year-old son James was a mammoth challenge and even simple tasks like washing dishes would trigger crippling fatigue.

He was a shadow of the man he’d been less than six months earlier, a hands on dad, gym goer, rugby player and teacher of Spanish at a Doncaster secondary school.

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Life changed so dramatically for Chris with a diagnosis that many thousands of us have received in the past two years; he tested positive for Covid-19. He is now one of more than a million people who have reported living with long-term effects of the virus.

Chris Leffler with his son James.Chris Leffler with his son James.
Chris Leffler with his son James.

A PCR test confirmed he was positive in late October 2020. “I was making myself a coffee in the morning and I realised I couldn’t smell the coffee at all,” he recalls. “This sounds really stupid but I then sniffed an orange to see whether I could smell that and I couldn’t so I thought something’s not right here.

“It was really distressing, there was nervousness that I might have infected someone at work, I was worried about infecting my wife and son, I was worried about how it was going to affect me. In the first lockdown, I had been instructed to shield so I knew I was a more ‘at risk’ person and therefore I was quite scared about what was going to happen to me.”

His symptoms at the time - flu-like and tiredness - were thankfully not unmanageable. However, after his two weeks of self-isolation, rather than getting better, Chris felt like he was deteriorating.

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A visit to the GP led to antibiotics for a suspected chest infection. But Chris was still unwell afterwards, with new and fluctuating symptoms including severe fatigue, shortness of breath, muscle aches, a raised heart rate and a rash.

Chris Leffler, who has been supported by The Sheffield Post Covid Rehabilitation Hub, for his Long Covid symptoms.Chris Leffler, who has been supported by The Sheffield Post Covid Rehabilitation Hub, for his Long Covid symptoms.
Chris Leffler, who has been supported by The Sheffield Post Covid Rehabilitation Hub, for his Long Covid symptoms.

He’d also begun to notice issues with his speech and movement; he started to stutter and suddenly, just moving around the house became a real struggle. “[That] could knock me out and cause me to feel exhausted. It was really debilitating. And really demoralising,” he says.

Chris, 30, of Hillsborough, in Sheffield, turned again to his GP, who recognised his symptoms as Long Covid. He was referred to The Sheffield Post Covid Rehabilitation Hub at the end of January last year, becoming one of its first patients.

The facility, which provides support to people suffering long term effects of Covid-19 infection, was set up in January 2021 by Sheffield Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust and the NHS Sheffield Clinical Commissioning Group.

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In its first year of operating, more than 1,200 people have been referred from GPs and hospital teams, for help assessing their needs and accessing rehabilitation services. “The NHS is in a funding crisis and has been stretched to the max in the past couple of years,” says Chris.

“So to be able to find the money and the expertise to support people with Long Covid is an incredible achievement. I, for one, have really valued that and I hope it continues as a service, as the work it does is just phenomenal. What it has done for me has been life-changing.”

People can be referred to the hub 12 weeks after Covid infection and those who have been supported have experienced a range of symptoms including brain fog, anxiety, depression, breathlessness and fatigue.

Patients receive an initial assessment from a care coordinator and are provided with self-help materials. The hub, supported by a consultant physician and psychologist, can also refer people onto other medical and psychological services.

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For Chris, it meant help accessing a speech therapist, dermatologist and support for his mental health, among other rehabilitation. Having someone to talk to about the recovery process, during a time when relatively little was known about Long Covid, also helped him to better manage his symptoms.

“One of the biggest things was just being validated,” he says. “It was very, very isolating and you felt like you were just a bit weird. My care coordinator was able to reassure me that she knew of people who had similar symptoms to me and that it was completely justifiable to be off work and finding things difficult. She made me feel like it was okay to not be okay, in terms of my mental health and coming to terms with my physical issues.”

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Around six months into his symptoms, Chris attempted a phased return to work in his teaching job. “Unfortunately that really set me back and the exhaustion, which I had been starting to get control of, came back even worse,” he explains.

He made the decision to leave the profession and has instead joined his brother in business, which he says gives him greater flexibility and helps him to manage his Long Covid symptoms. “I never got to the stage where I felt I was going to be able to do the level of work expected of me in teaching…Even now, when I do feel like I’m back to a mostly normal life, I think teaching would still be beyond me, just because it’s a very demanding job.”

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The latest figures from the Office for National Statistics indicate that Chris was one of around 1.3 million people in the UK who were experiencing self-reported Long Covid - symptoms persisting more than four weeks after the initial infection - at the start of December last year.

Of those, four in ten had been experiencing symptoms for at least a year and two-thirds said the symptoms adversely affected day-to-day activities. In terms of profession, self-reported Long Covid was more common in those working in health or social care or teaching and education.

Whilst Chris still has some ongoing issues, thanks to months of support from the hub, he is feeling more like his usual self. “I am not completely recovered but I am much better, and it doesn’t stop me doing the things I want to do,” he says.

A lot of his physical symptoms have improved or he’s learnt to better manage them, and mentally, he’s feeling much brighter. “It was really hard to go from a parent being very active (in the first lockdown he used to walk for miles around Sheffield with James in the sling) to not being able to walk down the street without being too breathless and too tired,” he says.

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“That really changes your life. And it really changes how you think about yourself. You go from seeing yourself as an active, healthy person to suddenly seeing yourself as a bundle of limitations. One of the things I found to be really helpful with the Long Covid service was how they helped me to remove some of those limitations and become more confident in being able to do more things and live a more full life.

“Being able to do the things like looking after my little boy without having to worry about tiring myself out too much, and being able to take him out for a walk without that wiping me out for the rest of the day, is a huge, huge improvement and actually that’s what’s most important to me.”

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