Covid stole my sense of smell – but I never gave up hope of finding it
Paola Totaro went on a two-year quest to recover her sense of smell, one curious side-effect of the worldwide pandemic
by: Paola Totaro
6 Jul 2022
Illustration: Big Issue
My nose was taken out on March 27, 2020. It was sudden; smell disappeared in an instant as if a light had been turned off, and when I realised I couldn’t even smell bleach, it felt as if my world had upended, and I was dropping in a faulty elevator.
The UK had just gone into lockdown, but this was not a recognised Covid symptom, and when I rang the GP in a panic, they brushed it aside as coincidence. I had been reporting Covid in Italy for Australian newspapers, however, and had begun to hear anecdotal reports of sudden onset smell loss from Italian patients and their doctors. Intrigued, I Googled smell loss – its medical name is anosmia – and would find out later that hundreds and thousands of others were doing the same.
The sheer avalanche of search engine requests for ‘smell loss’ alerted the chemosensory scientific community too that something odd was happening in the noses of Covid patients worldwide.
So began a two-year journey in which I scoured the scientific and medical world to try to learn more about a sense I had never really thought about, but now missed like a severed limb.
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The quest for answers took me into the laboratories of some of the world’s top neuroscientists (often by Zoom, as the world remained closed) and the surgeries of ear, nose and throat specialists.
I spoke to people who had lost their sense of smell due to brain injury and picked the brains of philosophers who explained the mysteries of our perception of scent and flavour. I charted my own strange and stop-start recovery and spent a week in Dresden alongside young olfactory scientists and physicians learning about the physiology of smell.
One afternoon, in an anatomy lab, I held a human brain in my hands and examined the olfactory system in a severed human skull. I learned about parosmia, the medical name for the terrible distortions of smell and taste that can afflict some people as their nasal membranes recover in the wake of the virus. And I made friends with AbScent and its incredible founder, Chrissi Kelly, a UK charity that advocates, researches and documents the effects of smell loss on quality of life, love and health.
The result of my journey is On the Scent, a book which I hope will spark a renewed interest in our fifth sense, one often called the Cinderella of the senses because it has historically attracted less attention than sight or hearing.
Most importantly, I’d like the specialist scientists and physicians whose voices are documented to be heard more widely. Their message is a powerful one: that smell is a sentinel of health and can signal onset of some serious neurological diseases such as Parkinson’s well before any symptoms appear. Smell should be part of our everyday health checks, and GPs need education and encouragement to take it more seriously.
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When I was a child growing up in Australia in the 1970s, kids’ literature was predominantly British. The English countryside was the province of my imagination with the creatures of The Wind in the Willows at the epicentre. This week, as I await UK publication of On the Scent, I am reminded of the profoundly moving moment when Mole, journeying with Ratty, sniffs the wind, and his quivering little nose catches a whiff of his long-lost home.
“It was one of these mysterious fairy calls from out the void that suddenly reached Mole in the darkness, making him tingle through and through with its very familiar appeal … his nose searching hither and thither in its efforts to recapture the fine filament, the telegraphic current, that had so strongly moved him. A moment, and he had caught it again; and with it this time came recollection in fullest flood.”
Proust and his madeleines, frankly, has nothing on Kenneth Grahame, but little did I know then that half a century later, I would join Mole in spontaneous sobs when my Covid-ravaged nose perceived the scent of spring jasmine after eight long months of smelling nothing – not my daughter, not my husband, not the tantalising mix of onions and cumin frying in the pan, the scent of pending rain or even my beloved cairn terrier’s muddy, stinky fur.
The elation and sheer joy I felt in that instant when a hint of olfaction returned will remain locked in my memory forever, as will the sense of relief that I might be one of the lucky ones and recover my fifth sense.
Re-reading Mole’s thoughts about the caressing appeals from his nose, those soft touches that are wafted through the air, those invisible little hands pulling and tugging him towards home, reminded me I had really only valued my sense of smell when I lost it. That’s a lesson I will never forget.
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