The image is heart-rending. A mother and daughter struck down by Covid, gasping for breath side-by-side in their intensive care beds, holding hands for what would be their final photograph together.
Both gravely ill, one of them would survive, the other would die the following day.
‘Every second is etched into my memory for ever, so I don’t need to look at that photograph to remember,’ says Anabel Sharma, 49, of her final precious moments with her dying 76-year-old mother, Maria Rico.
‘Mum’s hand felt so weak in mine, as I gripped on so tightly, begging her to keep fighting. I was crying and struggling to breathe.
‘I was almost shouting because I didn’t know if she could hear me and I couldn’t hear her because of the mask over her face. That was when a doctor patted me on the hand and said: “Anabel, she’s telling you you’re not listening to what she is saying. She’s ready to go.” ’
The heartbreaking image of Anabel Sharma, 49, (right) holding the hand of her dying 76-year-old mother, Maria Rico, side-by-side in their intensive care beds in what would be their final photograph together
Anabel’s ordeal can today be heard in every laboured breath of her permanently damaged lungs and in the long, painful silences — punctuated with quiet sobs — as she talks for the first time in detail about the harrowing story behind that arresting image.
Millions of people have seen the photograph since Anabel, a community healthcare manager, bravely made it public this week as hospital admissions escalate.
Taken by ambulance to Leicester Royal Infirmary last October from the home they shared with Anabel’s husband and three sons, mother and daughter battled for life together until Maria’s death on November 1.
‘I had no idea my mother was going to die until just prior to that photograph being taken,’ says Anabel, whose Spanish-born mother was an NHS domestic for around 20 years.
‘It felt like a bad dream when a consultant stood by my bed and told me my mother didn’t have long, a couple of days at most. I felt so ill myself and I went into complete shock.’
Anabel was distraught to be told her mother — lying five beds away from her in an ICU ward packed with around 30 Covid patients — had signed a Do Not Attempt Resuscitation form.
‘The medical staff arranged for my bed to be moved next to my mum’s so I could see her and talk to her,’ weeps Anabel.
‘I was begging her, “Please mum, reconsider, I’m pleading with you to change your mind about the DNAR.”
‘She kept saying, “I don’t want to be a burden” and I was crying, “Mum, you’re not a burden to us, we will do anything. I don’t want you to do this, please change your mind.”
Taken by ambulance to Leicester Royal Infirmary last October from the home they shared with Anabel’s husband and three sons, mother and daughter battled for life together until Maria’s death on November 1. Pictured inset: Anabel and Maria before they fell ill with Covid
‘Then Mum became quite firm with me, saying, “You are not listening to me.” She told me she’d had enough. She couldn’t face any more treatment. She didn’t want to be intubated and risk not waking up, or being left with no quality of life.
‘I was so distressed my oxygen levels dropped dangerously low and I had to be taken away and sedated. I woke up after what felt like five minutes, but a full day had passed. The consultant was there again at my bedside, telling me, “Anabel, your mum is dying.” ’
Once again, her bed was moved next to her mum’s, where she was later joined by younger sister Susana, 47, who was allowed on to the ward in full PPE for their mother’s last hour of life.
‘Mum looked so poorly and this time I asked medical staff to remove my hood, so I could talk to her properly,’ says Anabel. ‘They replaced it with a nasal cannula, but the force of the oxygen was so painful it made my nose bleed.
‘When mum asked for her oxygen mask to be removed, they told her, “If we take your mask off, you’re going to die.” But my Mum just nodded “Yes”.
‘I held her in my arms and told her over and over again how much I loved her. I was crying so much, but Mum was very calm. She told us she wasn’t afraid to die; that she was proud of us both and that we should stick together as sisters and keep our strong bond.
‘Then she told me I had to fight hard to get better because I had to be at home for my children. All her thoughts were for us, nothing for herself. Then, after about five minutes, she just closed her eyes.
‘I sat there counting her breaths and in her final minute she took four and then just stopped. I turned to the nurse and cried, “Has she gone?” And she replied, “Yes, I’m very sorry.”
‘I kissed her forehead, but was so distressed my oxygen levels dropped and I had to be taken to my own bay. That last touch of the hand, that last kiss meant everything to me.’
Just two days later, Anabel — who was herself so ill at one point that doctors thought she too would die — suddenly turned a corner.
‘The consultant told my husband, “It’s almost as if she’d split herself in two. Half was thinking about her mother and the other half was for herself, now she is fully fighting for herself to recover,” ’ says Anabel, who had to watch a live stream of her mother’s funeral from a side room of a rehabilitation ward.
‘I pulled out that last bit in me, to fight with every ounce of my being to get back home to my children.’
Anabel was discharged from hospital in the second week of December, and was overjoyed to spend Christmas with husband Bharat, 44, an account manager, and sons Jacob, 22, Isaac, 12, and ten-year-old Noah. But she is far from recovered.
‘I still need oxygen and become very breathless if I talk for a long time or even just make the beds,’ she says. ‘The virus permanently destroyed the air sacs in a section of my left lung and the bottom of both lungs, leaving them very fibrous and sticky, unable to absorb oxygen.
‘My kids are still very scared, particularly the younger boys who keep coming in every few minutes saying, “Mum, are you OK? Do you need anything? Can I have a hug?”
‘They really miss their grandmother and often I’ll find the youngest lying on Mum’s bed or hugging her pillow.’
Almost as debilitating as the lasting lung damage Anabel suffered are the night terrors which now plague her. Since her discharge she has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Anabel says doctors have no idea why she was affected so severely by Covid. Before the virus swept through the entire family, she’d been fighting fit and a keen kick-boxer.
Unlike her widowed mother, who had type 2 diabetes and was overweight, Anabel had only one underlying condition, mild asthma.
Anabel was discharged from hospital in December but she is far from recovered. Her ordeal can today be heard in every laboured breath of her permanently damaged lungs. ‘I still need oxygen and become very breathless if I talk for a long time or even just make the beds,’ she says
‘At the beginning of the pandemic, we naively thought that if we caught it, we’d probably be laid up in bed for a couple of weeks, but we’d be OK,’ says Anabel, whose late father Manuel, also an NHS domestic, died from a heart attack aged 52.
‘But we were very worried for my mother, so to protect her we never went out. My husband and I were able to work from home. All our shopping was delivered, we didn’t mix with anyone, didn’t go anywhere.
‘When the children came home from school, I’d tell them to wash their hands, have a shower and change their clothes before they went to see their grandmother. Even then, we’d say, “Don’t get too close, keep your distance.” ’ Despite all their precautions, at the beginning of October son Isaac developed a temperature. The family self-isolated in their rooms, but all tested positive.
Anabel deteriorated so quickly, an ambulance was called. Her temperature was by then 41.5c and her oxygen levels so dangerously low at 76, the paramedic started immediate oxygen therapy before taking her to A&E. ‘I asked him to check on my mum, and he came down and said, “We need to take her into hospital as well.” ’
In A&E, even back then, overstretched medical staff were having to make life-or-death decisions about who to treat.
‘A nurse was very honest. She told me the ICU Covid ward was so full that if another person came in who needed treatment ahead of my mother, they would only be able to offer her palliative care,’ says Anabel.
‘It was only because four people had tragically died from Covid that day that they were able to take both of us to the ICU.
‘The first time I saw the consultant, I asked him, “Am I going to die?” expecting him to say, “Don’t be silly.” But instead, he said “I don’t know.”
‘I asked the same question every day for three weeks and it was the same answer, “We don’t know, you are not responding to the treatment and we don’t understand why.” It was terrifying.
‘I participated in trials for different steroids, took antibiotics and they proned me — turning me on my front to ease pressure on the lungs — but I just wasn’t turning a corner,’ she says.
‘All around me people were dying every day. Around 90 per cent of the patients were sedated and on ventilators and I could hear relatives, who had been called in, crying. These were not all very old or vulnerable people.
‘I was getting to the point of desperation. All I could think about was my children, worrying, “What will they do without me?’’
‘They were my focus; they are my everything and I couldn’t bear the thought of them losing both their mother and their grandmother.’
Anabel says she will be eternally grateful to the medical staff who showed them such kindness, making time when so overstretched to ensure mother and daughter were together at the end
At first, both Anabel and her mother were given oxygen through a tightly fitted continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) mask — but Anabel couldn’t tolerate the pressure flow and was changed to a hood, which she had to wear for five weeks.
‘With the mask, I just couldn’t catch my breath at all and it was so tight, it was rubbing away the skin under my eyes and on the bridge of my nose. I don’t know how my mother coped with it,’ she says.
‘I said, “Please intubate me, so I can just wake up and it will all be over.” But they said that would be the last resort.’
Anabel says she will be eternally grateful to the medical staff who showed them such kindness, making time when so overstretched to ensure mother and daughter were together at the end.
She is thankful her mum was given the chance to relay her final wishes — a simple funeral with no fuss, cremation and for her ashes to be buried in Spain next to her late husband, but only ‘when it is safe and you are better’.
That is why Anabel shared her story on the Humans of Covid-19 Facebook page, set up by NHS staff to highlight the issues they are facing as hospital admissions rise.
‘I just wanted to raise awareness,’ she says. ‘Coronavirus isn’t a hoax but very real. I know that my frontline friends are absolutely exhausted and at breaking point.
‘I’m alive thanks to them. They are the reason I’m still here today — that and my determination to see my children again.
‘My message in sharing this photograph is very simple: please don’t let this be you.’