As we mark the anniversary of the UK’s first national lockdown today, we share Consett Powerlifter Big Al’s uplifting story of how he was floored by – but ultimately beat – COVID-19.
A year to the day, 63 year old gym founder Alan Turner was preparing to join thousands of international competitors at the annual Global World Powerlifting Championships in Canada.
But instead of defending his World Champion title, Alan found himself up against the most formidable opponent of his life, as coronavirus took hold.
The father of two from Consett believes he may have picked up COVID from someone who came to his gym who was feeling unwell.
We had no idea at the time just how deadly this virus would turn out to be.Alan 'Big Al' Turner
A few days after the first national lockdown was announced, Alan started to cough which wouldn’t go away and became very persistent. His wife Susan said he should get it checked out but he decided not to.
Weighing in at 20st 10lbs Alan was big and very fit. “I’m also very stubborn”, said Alan.
“I thought I would get over it but the coughing got worse and I started to feel sick. Susan urged me to speak to someone but I just took myself to bed with a bucket. Then I started to cough up blood.”
Eventually Susan put her foot down and they dialled 111. Alan was told he needed to get to hospital as quickly as possible.
“When I arrived at the University Hospitals in Durham the staff were all waiting for me”, continued Alan. “They took bloods and x-rayed my lungs. We were told it wasn’t good.”
Alan, known as ‘Big Al’ in the powerlifting community and to everyone he knows in his hometown of Consett, was taken to an isolation ‘COVID ward’ where his battle with the virus began.
The clinical team there found his lungs were so badly affected that he was unable to breathe on his own and he was given specialist respiratory support known as CPAP or continuous positive airway pressure. This involved a large plastic hood with a pump and a tube which help to keep a constant flow of air to help those with breathing difficulties.
However, a week later Alan’s lungs needed more support. He was put into an artificial coma so that he could be intubated, with a ventilator taking control of his breathing completely.
Five days later, Alan went into multi organ failure. His liver and kidneys weren’t working anymore so he was transferred to the intensive care unit at Newcastle’s Freeman Hospital.
“They did everything they could to help my kidneys recover,” explained Alan, “and my lungs started to improve.”
During his time in hospital, Alan’s weight plummeted from 20st 10lbs to just over 11st and he felt incredibly weak. He developed pneumonia, sepsis and was in pain everywhere.
“Everyone who knows me calls me ‘Big Al’. I’m an ex-Strongman. I’m ex-military. But I nearly died. I was frightened. Really frightened.”
And his family were frightened too. “Every time Susan took a call from hospital staff she was terrified that she was going to be told ‘that was it’. It really was touch and go for a while.”
Alan was brought out of his artificial coma and he was given a tracheostomy to help him breathe more easily. Four days later he was transferred across to the RVI’s intensive care unit where they started to give him lots of physiotherapy and just over a week later he was well enough to be transferred from intensive care to one of the medical wards to begin his recovery.
“The tracheostomy could be taken out so I could start to breathe on my own and I’d been nil by mouth for 5 weeks so I had to learn to how to swallow again. This was all good news but I was terrified of something going wrong and that I would get pneumonia again.”
Alan added: “The physios were absolutely amazing. They helped my confidence with breathing and swallowing, and did everything they could to help me start building my strength back”.
Megan Ball, an advanced physiotherapist and one of the physiotherapy team who helped Alan to recover recalls him very clearly.
“Alan is extremely motivated,” said Megan. “He couldn’t even stand never mind walk when he came down to the ward from the intensive care unit. But his determination to back to his usual self was clear for everyone to see.”
Alan even made a makeshift gym at his hospital bed using resistance bands that he asked the physio team to bring. This allowed him to start doing what he loves best as soon as he could.
Megan added “He called us up recently to let us know how he was getting on. He told us how he was planning to get back into competitive powerlifting again as soon as possible which was so amazing to hear.”
Altogether Alan was in hospital for 7 weeks with over of a month of this time in intensive care. Now, he is back to his original powerlifting weight of 20st 11lbs.
Now that’s an uplifting story!