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In It For The Long Haul: What Can Be Done For Patients With Lingering COVID Symptoms?

Tim Shelley / Peoria Public Radio
Michele Draher, a UnityPoint Health nurse in Peoria, tested positive for COVID-19 in May 2020. She's still experiencing lasting impacts, 11 months later.

Michele Draher started developing some of the classic symptoms of a bug on a Friday last May. It was the usual cough, fever, and chills. But by the following Monday, Michele tested positive for COVID-19. And by Wednesday, she was hospitalized.

"It was a very difficult thing. I mean, if you can only imagine, your husband taking you to ER and dropping you off, and not knowing if he was going to see you again or not," said Draher, a UnityPoint Health nurse from Elmwood.

Michele's oxygen levels plummeted to dangerously low levels in just a few days. Doctors put her on a ventilator for five days, and she wasn't discharged from the hospital until the following month.

But Michele's struggle with COVID-19 isn't over yet. She is one of about 10% of recovered COVID patients still suffering months later from what doctors call "post-COVID syndrome."

Credit Tim Shelley / WCBU
Dr. Ravi Kashyap, a pulmonologist at UnityPoint Health - Methodist in Peoria, and one of Michele Draher's coworkers.

"After the patient has recovered, they still have commonly fatigue, that's the most common one. Shortness of breath. They cannot sleep, insomnia. They cannot concentrate, like they're in a fog. They may also have a headache. That's a common feature," said Dr. Ravi Kashyap, a pulminologist at UnityPoint Health-Methodist. In addition to assisting with her treatment, he's also one of Michele's co-workers.

Dr. Deepak Nair, an OSF HealthCare neurologist, said physicians expected to see long-term effects in patients with severe COVID-19 infections requiring an ICU stay. Some lasting damage is common with any extended hospitalizations. But he's been surprised how many people with mild or even no symptoms are reporting the same thing months after infection.

"I don't think that's something that was really anticipated. So we do suspect there's a couple of different processes going on here physiologically," said Nair.

Credit Courtesy OSF HealthCare
Dr. Deepak Nair, an OSF HealthCare neurologist.

Kashyap said there's really no surefire way to predict who may end up developing post-COVID syndrome.

"We don't know why. (There's) a lot of studies to go on to see why patients have that," Kashyap said. "The questions have been asked to us, like, who is at high risk of developing long COVID syndrome? And there is none."

For Michele, living with fatigue, insomnia, and brain fog is now a part of everyday life. Unlike many COVID survivors, she never lost her senses of taste and smell, but did suffer from a less common side effect: hair loss.

"The hair loss was just traumatic to me," she said. "You know, I've never been one to worry about my hair, but when you have that happening every day, having globs of hair coming out, that is just...you're sitting there wondering, wow, what's causing this, you know?"

Because COVID-19 can affect so many parts of the body in different patients...it requires a multifaceted approach. Dr. Brian Curtis, OSF HealthCare's vice president of Clinical Specialty Services, said OSF has developed a COVID Recovery Clinic to route long-hauler patients through their primary care provider to the specialist services they may need.

Credit Courtesy OSF HealthCare
Brian Curtis, vice president of Clinical Specialty Services for OSF HealthCare.

"They may send you to speech therapy. They may send you to physical therapy for guided physical exertion, really to kind of rehab you through that. They may refer you to counseling, to really have some discussion around that," Curtis said.

Nair said the most powerful tools in his kit for treating long-hauler patients aren't any fancy scans or instruments, but the basics: physical examinations and simply talking to them about how they're doing.

"There's nothing as of yet that has gotten so good that we can replace those skills," Nair said. "So when patients report to us that they're feeling a certain way, we're going to take them at their word. And if it's impeding their function in daily life, then that's when we know something is going on."

Curtis said people need to know what they're feeling isn't just in their head -- it's real.

"If you're experiencing symptoms of this, you're not alone, so don't be alone with this," he said. "Reach out to your primary care physician or primary care APP and let us help you."

More than a year into the pandemic, Kashyep said there's still a lot not understood about the long-term effects of COVID-19 and how to treat them. But that doesn't mean there's nothing to be done.

"We encourage the people, like Michele, we encourage slowly increasing the exercise capability and physical activity as you can. Don't push yourself too hard, but keep doing it," he said.

For Michele, life is slowly improving, one step at a time. She can now make it up two flights of stairs on the way up to her sixth floor office, with only a couple breaks to catch her breath. And her hair is beginning to grow back.

"It's so hard. You just take it day by day. And you know, just prayers. You pray that people will take it serious and just do their part and help out. You got to think of others," she said.

For Michele, that includes wearing your mask and following other basic public health guidelines like social distancing and frequently washing your hands.

"It really hurts, as a mother, knowing some of your family or your children, they don't take it serious," Michele said. "And for what I went through, I don't want any of my children, family, friends to go through it. It's not that difficult to take those precautions."

Kashyap said getting the vaccine is easy -- and it's worth it.

"It's not a simple thing to have a COVID infection. It can have a long-term effect. We are still scratching just the surface. We don't know if we're seeing the effects on the blood clotting, the heart disease, and the young kids having the heart disease, cardiomyopathy, and et cetera," Kashyap said. "So do your part. Be respectful of other people. And get the vaccine. Please, do."

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Tim is the News Director at WCBU Peoria Public Radio.