On the evening of the 20th March, just as the UK was starting to go into lockdown, I was eating some jelly babies in the car.
“These are really cheap jelly babies aren’t they? They just don’t taste of anything”.
“They’re not the best but they taste ok…” replied my husband.
I tried another one with a different flavour, which tasted identically bland. I could taste the sweetness and a vague hint of sour, but no lemon, no berry flavour, nothing.
Over the previous few days the news had filled with news about coronavirus – France and Spain had already locked down and we were following suit. The symptoms we were all on the lookout for were a high fever, a dry cough and shortness of breath. I didn’t have any of those, but had had a mild headache, I’d been to a yoga class a couple of days previously so attributed my aching muscles to exercise, and I generally didn’t feel quite right. But I didn’t have any of the symptoms at that time suggestive of coronavirus infection.
That day, I had read a tweet suggesting that a loss of smell and taste might be a symptom of coronavirus, and as I chewed on my tasteless jelly babies it slowly dawned on me that I was about to become a statistic. We had started getting admissions of severely ill patients with c-19 pneumonia, and I had been on call only a couple of days previously where one after another the patients had been brought in, some near death, some in cardiac arrest and unsalvageable. I pictured myself as one of those patients in a few days time, and I went through the people I’d interacted with in the previous few days and felt terrible at the thought that I may have infected them. I was also strangely relieved that I no longer had to fear catching the virus, I already had it – what would be would be.
As we got home I looked at the WhatsApp groups which were going crazy with frightening stories (many of them untrue) of healthcare workers dying, predictions of disaster, and pictures of people fighting over the last toilet roll in Lidl. I sat down and opened a reasonably nice bottle of wine. As I took my first sip all I could taste was a slight bitterness and the warm feeling of the alcohol. I might as well have been drinking vinegar. To make matters worse I cooked a fairly simple mushroom truffle pasta for dinner, which Paul said was absolutely wonderful, restaurant quality gush gush gush. All I could tell was that I’d salted it appropriately.
At this point I was still hopeful this would be a very temporary affair and decided to close that bottle and move on to the one from a couple of weeks previously that I had been saving for cooking. It didn’t taste any different, so I continued with this. My morning coffee might as well have been hot water, I’d peel an orange in front of my face and smell absolutely nothing, I couldn’t tell the difference between lemon juice and vinegar.
I have always had a fairly sensitive sense of smell, and I think you forget how much you depend on it. Not being able to tell if the milk is off, not smelling smoke, not knowing if you’re a bit sweaty and should have a shower, not avoiding unhealthy exhaust fumes. I have never known air smell as crisp and clean as Lockdown London in March and April, but I’m sure much of that is because I could smell nothing.
I wasn’t the only one of my colleagues to experience this: I think about 70% of us had a good suggestive history of virus infection, some of us became extremely unwell, others had a mild illness, but many experienced a loss of taste and smell. I remember doing a straw poll of the nurses coming on shift on our covid makeshift ICU and about two thirds had experienced the change. During the surge we changed the way we worked completely, and all of us went onto a shift pattern. One night there was a case in the operating theatres with a particularly offensive smell that spread through the entire suite, including various handover rooms. It was easy to differentiate those who had been infected with covid from those who hadn’t by our lack of awareness of this particularly putrid smell that had everyone else wearing their FFP3 masks for the whole shift.
My hopes of a fast recovery from the anosmia were dashed slowly over the next few weeks, when eating became an act of habit rather than pleasure, the taste of gin was a dim distant memory, but at least the bathroom always smelled clean and fresh. I remember the joy when my habit of drinking my morning espresso that tasted like hot water was actually accompanied by the faintest hint of coffee. This was about six weeks after I lost my sense of smell, and I was beginning to think I’d never regain it.
Over the next few weeks I started smelling my soap, citrus fruit, flowers. My friends have been sympathetic but I think are growing tired of me complaining about it. I discuss it with those of my colleagues who have had long lasting anosmia, and I’m grateful that I didn’t experience aberrant smells such as the continuous smell of exhaust fumes that one of them had. We recently welcomed a new set of trainees to the department and one recent conversation had us comparing our different anosmia experiences as many of them went through the same as I did.
I’m still not back to normal, but most days there is a small improvement. More “earthy” smells have taken longer to come back but now five months later some are returning, giving me hope that this sense that we take for granted may actually return, and one day I may taste truffle again.
(As they say, if you’ve been affected by this there are resources out there. For instance have a look at fifthsense.org.uk for some practical advice on how to deal with anosmia)