While in a coma and on life support, Grace Victory had hallucinatory and terrifying dreams. She was sex trafficked. Doctors removed her legs. Her ovaries were operated on, and her children harvested. She woke up dead, in Reading.
It was January 2021, and the 31-year-old influencer was in hospital with Covid-19. She remembers the dreams as vividly as if they were the plot of her favourite TV show. They’re “embedded in my brain”, Victory says, “as real memories. Being told it didn’t happen – it’s like, well, it did.”
Victory had begun to feel unwell around 17 December 2020. She had a fever and couldn’t hold down any food. Doctors advised her to go in for monitoring, and she flung some slippers and toiletries into an overnight bag. At the time, she was seven months pregnant with her first child. She was admitted to Northwick Park hospital in north-west London with dangerously low oxygen levels, and on Christmas Eve, her son, Cyprus, was delivered by emergency C-section. By Christmas Day, she was in intensive care. The following day, Victory was put in a coma. Twenty-four days later, she went into cardiac arrest, flatlining for four minutes.
Doctors restarted her heart, and Victory remained in the gloom of an induced coma. “I was between the worlds, and it was hell,” Victory says. The first time doctors tried to rouse her from the coma, she woke up screaming. She lashed out in confusion and tried to pull out her tubes. “I felt like a lion in the jungle,” she says, “fighting for my cubs. There was this deep rage for everyone, because it was like: where is my fucking child?”
Nurses reassured Victory that Cyprus was at home, being cared for by her partner, songwriter Lee Williams. But she still couldn’t meet him in person for the first time since his birth, due to Covid-19 visitor restrictions. It would be nearly three months before Victory would be reunited with her son.
In mid-February, Victory finally started to come around properly. For the next three weeks, she lay in her ICU bed, weak, bored and morose. She longed to feel the sun on her face; to look out of a window and see trees swaying in the breeze. To breathe unassisted, without a tracheostomy tube in her throat. Artificial air doesn’t taste real. “It feels like a machine,” says Victory. “When you breathe normal air, it’s warmer and softer.”
And then, on 8 March 2021, Victory picked up her phone and tweeted from her ICU bed. “I’m awake,” she wrote to her 104,000 Twitter followers, who had been waiting for news. The tweet was liked 56,000 times, and made national headlines. But Victory’s story of Covid-19 survival and recovery doesn’t end with one viral tweet. It’s ongoing. The trauma is baked into her bones. It has accompanied her on every faltering step – through ICU and rehab, and, finally, returning home to live with her family.
Over a year later, Victory is ready to talk about her harrowing near-death experience. It’s a story of two parts: the Grace she once was, and the Grace she has become. “I’ve been a survivor my whole life,” she says. “I’ve been through a lot. Now I’m letting the whole survivor identity go, and it’s like, OK, who am I outside of this? Who is Grace outside of trauma and survival and overcoming? Who am I, without all of that?”
Before she contracted Covid-19, Victory – an influencer who posted videos about relationships, body image and mental health to her YouTube channel; partnered with brands including Sky and Pandora on her Instagram account; and wrote two books – was an incorrigible workaholic who, by her own admission, didn’t make enough time for family and friends. “When you’re working class,” she says, “you’re taught to grind, grind, grind, work, work, work, and obviously I live in London, where the cost of living is wild. So I always knew that I was working too much, but I couldn’t get out of that cycle.”
We’re speaking at her home in north-west London. Williams is in the room next door, attending to Cyprus, who is a bright and inquisitive toddler. Their living room betrays their status as new parents. Surfaces are stacked with bottles; a playpen in the corner overflows with soft toys; CBeebies plays on the television. I arrive just as Victory is finishing her photoshoot, and the exertion of standing for photographs has drained her. “Can I sit down?” she asks the photographer, before slumping on a stool. Later, she explains that she’s about “90% recovered”, but still struggles with fatigue and limited mobility in her left arm.
Victory was born to a white British mother and black father of Caribbean heritage, and grew up in a council flat in High Wycombe. Her father, she writes in her memoir, was a heavy cannabis user and physically abusive towards her mother, although never to Victory or her sister.
To escape, Victory enrolled in the Jackie Palmer Stage School in Buckinghamshire, whose alumni include James Corden and Eddie Redmayne. She went on to secure parts on TV, and was an extra in the Harry Potter franchise. “I was modelling at two,” she says, “and then doing TV shows, films, dancing all the time.” Being a working child actor meant she always felt less like a child than the head of the family, particularly when, aged 15, she threw her father – who was separated from her mother, but had a habit of dropping around unannounced – out of the house, tired of his abuse. She is not embittered about this accelerated childhood spent on film and TV sets. “That’s the stuff that saved my life,” she says. “I wouldn’t change it.”
Aged 16, Victory was raped, and attempted suicide twice. She subsequently began therapy, and launched a YouTube channel as a creative outlet from a boring admin job. Her first videos were about beauty, but over the years, she would speak about her PTSD, therapy and struggles with eating disorders in confessional videos, becoming a body-positive activist and brand ambassador for Nike’s plus-size range, and a mental health ambassador for Mind, and publishing a memoir and a book about self-care. “I think I grew big because I was a bit different,” she says of her career. “Back then, everyone was white and quite posh, and I wasn’t. I’m quite normal, and I think people can relate to my experiences.” Today, she’s primarily transitioned to Instagram, deleting all of her old YouTube content, and she has 250,000 followers on the platform.
When Victory was pregnant with Cyprus in 2020, she knew she wanted his childhood to be different from her own. “A natural childhood … to be safe and content,” she says. And she loved being pregnant: “It was like, oh my God, this is incredible.” Victory was not frightened of the Covid-19 pandemic. “I never paid too much attention to it,” she says. “Obviously I did the usual – wore masks, washed my hands. I didn’t go out much, but I didn’t like going out much anyway. I’m quite antisocial. The chaos in the world was nothing compared with the chaos that I’ve had internally before, with childhood PTSD, depression, anxiety.”
Despite the circumstances, Cyprus’s birth was a joyful, calm experience. Williams sang The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face as doctors delivered Cyprus. “It was very peaceful and quick,” says Victory. “So although things turned out to be horrendous, the process of conception and carrying Cyprus and bringing him into the world was actually really beautiful.” She briefly touched her son before he was whisked to neonatal intensive care, but because she had Covid-19, she wasn’t permitted to hold him.
The following day, her condition had worsened and Victory was taken to intensive care. She remembers saying goodbye to Williams at the entrance to the unit. “He was crying,” she says. “He never cries. I thought, OK, this is obviously serious.” Victory texted her family and friends, telling them she was certain she was going to die, although she has no memory of sending the messages. Weirdly, there was no fear. Then doctors put her under, and she entered a liminal state, running from the shadowy forces that haunted her dreams.
Victory’s body bears the scars of her three-month ICU stay. She shows me a snaking line between her breasts, from the chest compressions. Her tracheotomy scar looks red and sore. But the mental scars take longer to heal, and Victory struggles with survivor’s guilt.
“Why did I survive?” she says. “Why have I recovered and pretty much gone back to normal? There was a Covid mummy who died – the clot went to her heart. She was from the UK and she was 30 and she had a baby, and it just rocked me, because her baby’s going to grow up without his momma, and that could have been Cyprus.” She thinks about this often. “The thought of a young black boy living in London without a mum is just really hard for me,” she says. “Because I know that life is tougher when you’re a person of colour.”
Being away from Cyprus for the first months of his life “was fucking shit”, says Victory, with a bluntness recognisable to her fans. So was her reunion with her son, on 21 March last year. “People want me to say it was beautiful,” says Victory, “but it wasn’t. I hated it. Because he didn’t feel like mine. I was in hospital, and he was going to have to leave, so it was bittersweet, and I was so ill and weak.” She describes the day after Cyprus’s first visit as the worst day of her life. She lay in bed and finally everything hit her. “I thought, I’m going to die. I’m going to die. I’m dying. I want to die. I was still on a lot of medication, so I was high and sad and out of it at the same time. Kind of numb, but feeling everything as well. Rock bottom.”
From April until July, Victory was in what she calls “crisis mode”. “I wasn’t eating. I was really depressed.” She looked in the mirror and didn’t recognise herself. “I was three sizes smaller,” she says. “Pale, my head was bald, my skin was grey.” Victory was transferred to Hillingdon hospital in north-west London for rehabilitation, where she had to learn to sit up, to sit in a chair, to stand up, to walk. Every exhausting, fumbling step forward was for her son, she says. “Cyprus was my biggest motivator. I needed to get out of there.”
She was finally discharged in May 2021. At home, she rebuilt her relationship with Williams, who was traumatised by the experience of watching his partner nearly die. “He’s definitely got PTSD,” says Victory. “We both have. And it’s only now coming out for him, because the whole time it was all about me and our son.” (Victory has received a formal diagnosis; Williams has not.) Williams, who is a friendly and affable presence, is not ready to speak about the emotional impact of Victory’s hospitalisation, but in a Father’s Day Instagram post he said that looking after Cyprus while being unsure if his mother would survive was “the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do”.
Being absent for the first months of Cyprus’s life has not damaged Victory’s relationship with her son. “We’re attached healthily,” she says. “He’s a mummy’s boy. I put him to bed every night. Being a parent is amazing. I think the experience of being away from him has meant that I’m a more chilled out mum … because it’s beautiful to watch him explore the world, knowing there was a chance that I wouldn’t be here.”
Victory is effusive about the medical staff, particularly the nurses who aided her recovery. “They were outstanding,” she says, “above and beyond … There were so many bonding moments with the nurses, and they’ve obviously seen horrific things.” But she plans to use her experience to push for change in how ICU patients are treated, and she’s already met with hospital staff to give feedback. Victory talks about how there weren’t any hair products suitable for her to wash with in the ICU, as a mixed-race woman. Staff woke her up at 3am to check her blood pressure and at 5am for a bed bath, making it impossible to sleep through the night. “There are things that they need to change to benefit the patients,” she says, “and I would be honoured to be able to bring that about and bring awareness as well.”
She has also become an advocate for what she calls “Covid coma mummy survivors”, and has set up a closed Facebook group in which women can share their experiences. It’s a space to speak about “memory, fatigue, the guilt around not being there for your child”, says Victory. “Not being able to breastfeed, which was a massive thing for me, that I’m still mourning.” They are, relatively speaking, the lucky ones: at least 33 pregnant women are known to have died of Covid-19 in the UK since the pandemic began. Research indicates that pregnant women are 13 times more likely to die from Covid than people of a similar age who are not pregnant. (This is because pregnancy suppresses the immune system, making it more difficult to fight infection.)
Despite these statistics, pregnant women have lagged behind the rest of the population when it comes to uptake of the Covid-19 vaccine, largely due to confused and contradictory messages from healthcare professionals and the government about the benefits of vaccination. Some pregnant women reported being turned away from vaccine centres; others were warned against vaccination by midwives citing the thalidomide scandal. (In reality, data has shown that Covid-19 vaccines are safe in pregnancy). Of the pregnant women hospitalised with Covid-19 since vaccinations became available in 2021, 98% were unjabbed.
Victory fell ill before the Covid-19 vaccine was rolled out. I ask whether she’s vaccinated now. “I am going to be,” she says. “I had to get signed off from my medical team, and I got signed off last month.” Given her advocacy for ICU survivors, I ask whether she would also encourage pregnant women to get vaccinated. “I would tell people to do what you need to do to look after yourself, and for you to feel comfortable going forward with your pregnancy,” she says. It’s an equivocal answer, and I ask whether it might not help more people if Victory were to champion the vaccine.
“I hear that,” she says. “But when you go through so much trauma … for me personally, I don’t want to be an advocate for things that I don’t know everything about. I’m an advocate for you making your decision with what you want to do.” Later, Victory returns to the topic obliquely. “I sometimes think that people want me to become this spokesperson for Covid and pregnant women,” she says. “But I don’t want to be on that pedestal, I really don’t. It’s too much pressure and you’ll say something and it will be misconstrued or taken out of context or spun a certain way.”
I understand her perspective: Victory didn’t ask for any of this. She’s applying the same boundaries in her personal and professional life; working shorter hours, for example, even if it means her earnings go down. “I don’t want to just walk through life with my head in the sand, saying yes to things I don’t really want to do. It’s important to me to live a life that’s for me,” she says. Unexpectedly, Victory tells me that, given the opportunity to go back in time, she wouldn’t change anything. “The growth I’ve had this year in therapy has been the biggest compared with the six years of therapy I’ve had beforehand,” she says. “Tightening my boundaries, my relationships are better, being grateful, working less. All the stuff I’ve wanted to do I’ve only done because of this.”
Victory describes her pre-Covid self as someone who was “ungrateful, a workaholic, and separate from everything and myself”. In the room next door, Williams is hushing a babbling Cyprus. Victory looks me in the eyes, but I can feel her awareness drifting to the next room. “Now, I feel brave, and I feel soft, and I feel vulnerable,” she says. “But I haven’t found the words for me yet. And I guess the next few years is me figuring that out.”
• In the UK, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123, or email email@example.com. You can contact the mental health charity Mind by calling 0300 123 3393 or visiting mind.org.uk. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is on 13 11 14. In the US, the suicide prevention lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. Other international helplines can be found via befrienders.org