‘My tears are tears of joy because I cannot believe how lucky I am to have survived Covid-19’

‘I only remember being asked if I consented to having a tracheotomy and then I slipped into very vivid dreams, some included being looked after back home at John’s’

For 45 years St John’s has been Professor Peter Johnstone’s home and he was a familiar sight in College - until March when he was hospitalised with Covid-19.  For several weeks Peter was kept alive by a ventilator and the prognosis was bleak. He tells Jo Tynan about his brush with death during the coronavirus pandemic. 

Peter Johnstone starts our interview by telling me not to be embarrassed if he becomes tearful during our conversation. “They are not tears of sorrow, or shame. They are tears of joy because I cannot believe how lucky I am to have come through everything I did.”

We are in Peter’s set in E Staircase New Court surrounded by books and music scores, our meeting was arranged to start after he had given a Zoom lecture to students. A large bundle of letters from well-wishers is on the seat of his piano and a portrait of mathematician James Joseph Sylvester looks down at us. Peter is known for his ground-breaking contributions to Topos Theory, his love of music and his devotion to teaching. He makes us both a strong cup of coffee before he recounts the events of the last few months that none of us could have imagined at the start of the year. 

The 71-year-old is a tenor with The Bach Choir, one of the world’s leading choruses, and on March 4 they travelled to America to sing with the Yale Schola Cantorum, from Yale University, and to give a series of joint concerts at major US cities. Not long after they arrived in the US, the Yale authorities pulled the plug on the tour in response to the evolving coronavirus situation - but not before the choirs had rehearsed together. “It was a really positive experience singing with them. But we were suddenly left without the concert and without the tour.”

Peter Johnstone in his set

‘I never married - mathematics is the big love of my life and anyone sensible would have quickly tired of my focus on it! St John’s is my family’

Peter flew back to the UK and travelled home to St John’s. For a while he felt ‘absolutely fine’ and carried on with his normal life, including going to London to rehearse with the choir again, but his health was slowly deteriorating. It was fellow academics and his bedder who raised the alarm when they felt he was not himself and needed urgent medical help. Peter was admitted to Addenbrooke’s Hospital on March 19 suffering from a cough, confusion, and breathing difficulties. His condition was so serious he was swiftly sedated and put on a ventilator. 

He now believes he contracted Covid-19 in America. “The rehearsal room we used at Yale had been extensively used by a Yale faculty member who subsequently fell ill with Covid-19. A significant number of members of the Schola Cantorum as well as many members of The Bach Choir developed Covid symptoms so it seems highly likely we all picked up the virus in that room.”

Peter can’t remember much apart from some strange dreams, but a diary from his medical team shows he suffered repeated seizures, worryingly low blood pressure, developed pneumonia and his temperature spiked dangerously over the first few weeks. This was all while a ventilator was breathing for him as his body fought the Covid-19 infection.

Finally in May the medical team was able to successfully take him off the ventilator, a few earlier attempts were aborted when Peter’s condition worsened. But coming off the ventilator was only the first step on the long road to recovery.

“I only remember being asked if I consented to having a tracheotomy and then I mostly slipped into what I now know to be very vivid dreams, some of which included being looked after back home at John’s. I was incredibly lucky that there was space for me in Addenbrooke’s and the medical team were outstanding. I can see from my notes that they played music to me and I will always be grateful for their specialist care.

Peter Johnstone in New Court
Professor Peter Johnstone walking through New Court near his set in E Staircase. 

“It wasn’t until June when I was able to come out of intensive care and I then spent six or seven weeks in rehabilitation in hospital. Mostly I was extremely bored! I didn’t have access to the internet or to the outside world and no visitors were allowed. But I did have a whole stack of letters to read between physiotherapy appointments. Eventually I got my laptop and then had a lot of emails to deal with and I could do The Guardian crossword online every day which helped keep me sane.”

Peter was born in London in 1948 to James Arthur and Dorothy Johnstone, both civil servants. Peter, an only child of only children, has never married and says ‘mathematics is the big love of my life’. He added: “I think anyone sensible would have quickly tired of my focus on mathematics, it is quite common in academic circles to not leave room for all the other things people get up to. I went to the May Ball once but that was enough for me!

“Now my closest living relatives are second cousins and I’m particularly close to one called Ron who lives in Essex. He wasn’t allowed to visit me but he Skyped me every day when I was on the rehabilitation ward and did a tremendous amount to keep me in touch with the outside world.”

‘I wouldn’t wish what I went through on anyone and I am one of the lucky ones. People should follow the rules but live their lives’

Peter arrived at St John’s as an undergraduate in 1966 and ‘never really left’. “St John’s is my family and my home, there is nowhere in the world that would have been better for me to do the mathematics I’ve done. I’ve not led a particularly healthy lifestyle but I’ve never smoked and I’ve never got involved in drugs. Although I do drink more alcohol than is good for me, and I’ve not taken as much exercise as I should. I was on medication for various things but nothing that was a particular risk factor for being susceptible to Covid.

“In hospital I knew that I was only going to start recovering if I could take some exercise but at first I wasn’t even allowed to go to the bathroom on my own, which was frustrating. I remember being jealous of a man on my recovery ward who was allowed to go by himself! But I was too unsteady on my feet.”

There has been lots of news coverage of ‘Long Covid’ but Peter’s only ongoing side effect is the loss of sensation in three-and-a-half fingers on his right hand. “I’ve been told it could take up to 10 years before I get the feeling back. They are the fingers I use to hold a pen so it makes handwriting difficult but I’m learning to live with that.”

Professor Peter Johnstone with some of the letters he received in hospital from well-wishers
Professor Peter Johnstone with some of the letters he received in hospital from well-wishers. Photo credits: Nordin Ćatić.

When he finally returned home to St John’s in August an alarm system was fitted in his set to alert the support team in case he needed help. He has been going on regular walks – including a 10-mile one in the days before we meet – and his singing voice is returning. “I was worried that I might have lost the top end of my range and although it isn’t as powerful, it is coming back which I’m so pleased about as music is my passion – after mathematics of course!”

Peter’s ordeal and recovery is already being documented in a research paper so even in sickness he is contributing to academic knowledge. 

“I wouldn’t wish what I went through on anyone and I am one of the lucky ones. I would encourage people to follow the rules but to live their lives – I don’t regret going on the tour and I will return to in-person choral rehearsals as soon as it is allowed again. I just feel so very lucky to be alive and I’m determined to make the most of the time I have got left.”

This article appeared in the Michaelmas Term edition of Eagle Eye.

Published: 26/11/2020

Back to College News