Dr Athmaja Thottungal with her husband and son after conquering the mountain

‘I was breathless after walking up stairs – but now I’ve conquered a mountain’

A doctor who conquered a mountain 5600mts (18,400ft) above sea level after Covid left her bed-bound for two months is hoping to inspire others whose lives have been changed by the virus.

Dr Athmaja Thottungal, an anaesthesia and pain management consultant at East Kent Hospitals, has tested positive for Covid-19 three times – but it was her second bout, in December 2020, that proved most damaging. At one point, she feared she was going to die because it was so difficult to breathe, and she needed oxygen and steroid treatment.

The mum of two said: “I was on the verge of being intubated. The Hospital at Home team were treating me at home, and I said to my husband ‘If I die, I want to die here at home’.

“I was bedridden for two and a half months; I just couldn’t do anything. My husband was having to give me baths and care for me every day.”

Athmaja developed Long Covid sequalae, which affected her heart, lungs, and blood vessels as well as her immune system. She was off work for almost four months and then could only return part-time.

Specialists were baffled by her symptoms, and the treatments were not helping much. So Athmaja did her own research and realised lifestyle changes such as diet, sleep, stress management activities and breathing yoga techniques that stimulate the vagus nerve, could be helpful. The vagus nerve connects the brainstem to the entire body and is responsible for regulating immunity, inflammation, and internal organ functions including digestion, heart rate, and breathing.

The improvements proved so dramatic she decided to become certified in lifestyle medicine from the International Board of Lifestyle Medicine and British Society of Lifestyle Medicine and began to use the techniques with her patients as well as herself. She also decided to set herself a challenge - to trek Mount Kailash in Tibet.

She said: “The trek was on my ’50 things to do before I turn 50’ list, but then Covid came along.

“I didn’t want to give up my dreams, even when I was short of breath after climbing a flight of stairs after Covid.

“It gave me something to aim for, and I did a lot of work on my respiratory and cardiac function, and changed my gut microbiomes through the diet. I made sure every component of my lifestyle medicine pillars was optimised.

“I was talking to colleagues within the Trust and nationally about Long Covid and I realised if I could do the trek then it might inspire others to think about what they could achieve as well.”

Athmaja was instrumental in setting up a Long Covid support group for staff across the Trust, who found comfort in realising they were not alone in their struggles at a time when many clinicians did not understand the condition.

She said: “No one was talking about it. Sometimes I felt like an idiot describing my symptoms to professionals – and if I felt like that as a doctor, how did other non-medical people feel?

“People are more accepting of Long Covid as a condition now although there is still a lot that is not understood.

“I am still limited in many things what I can do and I have had to accept that. I have adapted and learned to work within those limitations – but there are still ways to achieve what I want to achieve.

“There are always things you can change and I focus on those, and being conscious of what I eat, how, and when, and how I do my activities, and making sure I get enough sleep and build in time to rest and manage stress.”

Athmaja completed the trek with her husband and 11-year-old son, after initially setting herself the target of reaching the base.

She said: “It is a three-day trek around Mount Kailash and we took it very slowly with lots of time to acclimatise. After the first day we had covered 18km, and I was assessed as being safe to continue.

“The second day was the hardest and my oxygen levels were very low and I was struggling. The team felt it wasn’t safe for me to walk the third day, so I ended up doing it in a vehicle while my husband and son walked.

“The sense of accomplishment at the end was still huge. I may be less able than other people of my age but there is always a way if you are willing.

“It was overwhelming to know I had done it. When you have spent so long struggling to breathe you realise how important your life itself is. It is not about power, positions, degrees or money; they are worthless if you can’t have that simple breath.

“The whole Covid experience changed my priorities and the trek was another awakening call to appreciate and notice the little things around you and be thankful for the smallest blessing.”

Athmaja is now considering her next challenge to continue improving her physical and mental strength, and hopes to inspire and help more people in similar situations.