WORLD Radio - Long recovery
For some COVID-19 patients, symptoms linger for months
NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Thursday, July 1st. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day.
Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.
MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: COVID side-effects.
Over the last year, vaccines and their potential reactions have gotten a lot of attention. But as more than 167 million people world-wide caught COVID-19 and recovered, the list of side-effects from the disease continues to grow.
EICHER: WORLD’s Paul Butler recently spoke with a doctor who says COVID and its lingering symptoms are likely to define medical research for a generation.
AUSTIN: My name is Keturah Austin, and I’ve had COVID twice. I had it first in early 2020, and again at the end of 2020.
PAUL BUTLER, REPORTER: Keturah Austin lives in Bel Aire, Kansas, a suburb of Wichita. After her first bout with COVID, she struggled with symptoms for weeks.
AUSTIN: I think the things that stuck around and started making me wonder what was going on were things like, the brain fog, the exhaustion. Instead of eating lunch, I would take a nap. The other thing that really stuck around for me was the body aches. I really just wanted to know what was going on and when it was going to end?
By now, we’re all familiar with COVID-19 onset symptoms: fever, fatigue, cough, headache, loss of taste or smell, and troubled breathing. Most symptoms go away within two to three weeks. But for people like Austin, a growing catalogue of side-effects linger long after the initial recovery.
POLAND: This virus affects virtually every system of the body, every organ system...
Doctor Greg Poland is a professor of medicine and infectious diseases at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.
POLAND: We see problems with taste and smell. We see evidences of scarring of the heart, scarring of the lungs. We see abnormalities in sperm counts in males, and almost everything else you can imagine...
Other side effects include hair loss, phantom smells, blood clots, mood swings, anxiety, and various nerve abnormalities.
POLAND: We have certainly seen a large number of people who will have various phantom nerve sensations, for example, something crawling on them, or needle, or electric shock-like phenomena happening in their nerves. And we don't have a good way of predicting who will have what kind of complication.
When these symptoms persist for more than 30 days, it’s known as Post COVID Syndrome. Those who suffer from it are informally called: long haulers.
In the spring of 2020, Keturah Austin was slowly recovering from COVID. After four weeks, her symptoms weren’t much better. Her doctor assured her that it might take six to eight weeks before she got back to normal. But normal didn’t arrive on schedule.
AUSTIN: Probably eight to ten weeks after I first had it, I was at her office for an appointment, just still really struggling with all these effects. And she said, “Yeah, I don't know. I mean, we just don't know a lot about it, what else to try.” I kind of broke down at that point. And I was like, Hey, I know you don't know me. But this is not me...
Austin informed her doctor that what she needed was a partner to help her figure out what was going on.
AUSTIN: And it was as my parents used to say, that “come to Jesus meeting.” But it actually really helped. And after that, she just looked at me and she said, “Okay, I got it.”
According to Mayo Clinic’s Greg Poland, that’s a critical step for COVID long haulers in finding relief. First, you have to tell your doctor what you’re experiencing. Then, advocate for yourself.
POLAND: And that might involve bringing somebody with you, if you tend to be you know, shy or hesitant, or maybe even feeling like, to do that is to bring up conflict or something. Bring an advocate with you.
The third thing Poland says is to find a doctor who listens. Something he’s worked hard at doing for 40 years.
POLAND: Often people have symptoms that I don't understand. The appropriate answer is, “I don't really understand that symptom. Let's get a consultation with somebody in that field.” Or “let's continue to watch and wait and see how that unfolds.” Or “let's try this and see if it benefits you. If not, we'll step back and reassess.” But there's always something to do, including the most important drug a physician can ever use. And that's hope, to give patients hope.
Doctor Poland says we’re in a critical time for post-COVID care. Patients need to inform their doctors about their symptoms, no matter how small, and physicians need to listen carefully.
POLAND: We are literally building this airplane while we're flying it. We, by definition, only have 18 months experience with this virus. That’s why I would say if you have a symptom, report that. You might even think, “well, gosh, it sounds like kind of a crazy symptom,” but it might just be the symptom that triggers the right diagnostic pathway in the physician’s thinking as to what to do.
Sometimes, there’s nothing to do for the symptoms but wait them out. In those instances, long hauler Keturah Austin finds hope in talking with other people who have gone through it.
AUSTIN: Reading through the support groups for long term COVID sufferers has actually been really important for me, because it makes you realize you're not alone, for starters, and you can kind of gauge...kind of baseline things too.
Austin isn’t quite back to normal yet, but she’s found a silver lining through her many post-COVID symptoms.
AUSTIN: Going through this was rough certainly for me and for my family. But it did provide a great deal of clarity. I think there's there's good in everything. But I think it's also an opportunity to really share just kindness and grace with people. People get upset about masks and vaccines and this and that and the other or somebody complaining about not having the energy they used to. This is that opportunity to just have some grace.
Reporting for WORLD, I’m Paul Butler.
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