Navigating Covid-19 with a long term health condition

For most families, the move into noho rāhui / lockdown was a big one. When it comes to those living with severely compromised immune systems, it confirmed a reality they live with every day – that our health is fragile

This was the case for one Auckland household, for whom Covid-19 was just another hurdle to work through. Tim Lomas, 36, and Jo Mitchell, 33, have been together for just under a decade and are no strangers to jumping into the deep end – quickly into the start of their relationship, they moved to London together to do the big OE. It was a good test run for the challenges they would face later on.

In 2013, Jo was diagnosed with leukaemia and went through nine months of intensive treatment, with two years of follow up. Life returned to normal – the pair married and had their son, Quinn who is now two years old. But in 2018, just a couple of months after giving birth to Quinn, Jo suffered a relapse – her leukaemia was back.

“Almost from the day of the diagnosis, we’ve pretty much had to self-isolate,” says Tim. “Friends who were coming to visit, we had to make sure they were well and regularly sanitised their hands. We almost had a whole bunch of training before lockdown… which has come in handy in a kind of warped way.”

The good news is that in August last year, Jo underwent a stem cell treatment that saved her life. The tricky side of having her immune system restarted, effectively, means she now has the immunity of a newborn – right through to needing to have all of her vaccinations again. In normal context, that’s stressful – but in a global pandemic, it’s another level.

For Jo and for Tim, who has been Jo’s primary caregiver throughout this journey, it meant learning curve on top of learning curve. Tim, who works at the Mental Health Foundation, had started back at work, part time, at the beginning of 2020.

“We were slowly transitioning from being in isolation into some kind of normality,” he says. “When Covid-19 hit, we took a whole bunch of steps back.”

But there were new challenges as well. Living in a fairly remote part of Auckland, there were never a huge amount of available online shopping slots normally, let alone during Covid-19. “We had really, really awesome neighbours and local friends who would pick up things for us. I had a friend who sent us the lifeblood for any parent – coffee – because we’d run out and couldn’t get any more!” 

As the whole world became more aware of just how easily germs are spread, Tim says their friends’ awareness of what the family had been going through had grown. “They’re having conversations now like ‘I was a little upset when you guys had to cancel because I had a cough but now, I totally get it,’” he says. “It’s been an eye opener for a lot of people.”

With each diagnosis and subsequent treatment, Tim and Jo have had to rely on the people around them. It was an adjustment, Tim says. “When Jo was initially diagnosed, I had to break out of that traditional, Kiwi bloke mindset of ‘She’ll be right, I can do this on my own and just push through it.’”

As well as their wonderful community, both Tim and Jo had workplaces that wrapped around them, something they are both grateful for. Working at the Mental Health Foundation had numerous benefits as well, Tim says, because it meant he had the ability to identify when stress was getting to him – and give him the tools to work through it.

“The whole Five Ways to Wellbeing – they were flexible enough that I could do them in my own way,” he says. “Like the movement one – taking our son for a walk, going for a run down to the beach when I could.”

That was one of the practical tools that really helped, Tim says, and it’s his part of his advice for people who are in the caregiver position for someone in need.

“Find someone to talk to – whether it’s someone you trust who will listen, or a professional. And even though it seems really, really difficult when you’re in the thick of things, try and carve out just a little bit of time to clear your head or take a bit of time away from the stressful situation you’re in.”

Both Tim and Jo leaned into hobbies – Tim started painting, and Jo has become “pretty nifty at crocheting”. But it’s the ability to ask for help that has been the biggest game changer.

“There are always going to be tumbles – and I definitely had tumbles. In a weird way, all of those experiences we had helped us grow as people. Now I’m not afraid to ask for help when I need it, and that simple change has made so many things in our life much easier.”