COVID-19: In it for the Long Haul

A look into some of the scars COVID-19 leaves  well after victims test negative

Claire Brnjac // Arts and Culture Editor
John Pachkowsky // Illustration

There comes a point when you’re sick that you just want to wallow. You’ve lost so much sleep from coughing or congestion that you feel like you’re perpetually in The Twilight Zone, and either your lungs, head, or entire body radiate pain whenever you move. You have a consistent low-grade fever, meaning you sweat through your sheets nightly, but you’re not warm enough to be sent to the hospital. That is the point where you are officially Over It, where you would sell your soul in order to relieve whatever suffering you’re experiencing. 

One of my sources, who asked to remain anonymous and will be referred to here as *Ashley, says she’s been at this point for months; waiting to get better and never quite getting there. 

Like the other 70,000 people recovering from the novel coronavirus in British Columbia, Ashley is struggling with the after-effects of COVID-19. Like so many others, her case was not life-threatening—she never set foot in a hospital during her stint with COVID-19—but she says the pervasive nature of COVID-19 means she has not been “back to normal” since she contracted it.

COVID-19 seems to be the ultimate chameleon in terms of diseases. Despite the coronavirus strain being the same throughout most cases, the disease expresses itself in various ways. All of my sources named a lack of taste and smell as a major symptom, but other than that, the symptoms range from rashes to migraines to pink eye. Coughing was another common symptom, although not present in every case. 

COVID-19  is a strain of coronavirus that’s extremely new—so new that the research being done at the moment could become irrelevant in less than a year. From what researchers understand, the severity of the disease has something to do with the viral load of the disease, or how much of the virus is physically inside your body and how fast it replicates, and how healthy you are to begin with.

During these interviews, I sensed that these two people were traumatized from their experience with COVID-19, even though neither case was especially severe.

Another anonymous source, referred to here as *Michelle, disagrees with the notion that healthier people are less affected. She was diagnosed in late December 2020 with a moderate case of COVID and recovered, like Ashley did, without stepping foot in a hospital. She lives with four other family members, two of which are high-risk with a history of heart attacks and diabetes. They contracted COVID-19 too. Her case was the worst. 

“[The two family members] had zero symptoms except for no smell and barely any taste,” Michelle says. “I was the youngest with the worst symptoms.” She describes herself as arguably the healthiest of the family, and had not gotten sick in the last two years previous to the disease.

Both Michelle and Ashley said their experiences with the disease was “unbearable.” Ashley described a headache so painful that conventional 1000mg Tylenol would not touch it, as well as severe chest tightness and a lack of breath. “It was the scariest feeling ever; you notice it right away,” she tells me about her desperate need to inhale. “It’s a very particular feeling. A heavy one.”

Michelle had experiences with coughing fits that would last all night, not allowing her to rest or get much sleep when she needed it. For relief, she cherished cough medicine, saying, “I slept with a Ricola  in my mouth each night, or else I wouldn’t be able to stop coughing enough to sleep.”

During these interviews, I sensed that these two people were traumatized from their experience with COVID-19, even though neither case was especially severe. The aftereffects of the disease still impact their lives, making them “long-haulers,” a term created for people suffering from f COVID-19 symptoms long after they recover. A study from CNN says that a third of people with COVID-19 still battle symptoms after they recover, to a varying degree. 

Both Michelle and Ashley have healed “officially” after a few weeks but still battle the effects day-to-day. To alleviate her ongoing dry cough, Michelle drinks a shot of 40 per cent alcohol infused with pineapple juice every morning and night, something her mother makes her do and she says she feels a difference from. Breathing doesn’t appear to have worsened, except for when coughing becomes debilitating enough that she has attacks. 

Ashley has had a much different healing experience. She says she mentally and physically tires more easily than before, with new chronic headaches. Ashley’s symptoms seem to be more in line with a mysterious aspect of COVID-19—a neurological component. 

The most common reported symptom of COVID-19 is a loss of smell and taste. This symptom is also common with influenza and common colds, but unlike them, it sometimes sticks with the victims. Michelle described her sense of taste as “about 70 percent back” two months after she’s healed and mentions she cannot taste certain foods still. She also says she suffers from a “lingering, metallic taste” in her mouth. This could suggest that the part of Michelle’s brain that controls taste and smell might be damaged in some way, and would explain Ashley’s chronic headaches. But how does a respiratory disease make a person suffer neurologically?

An article in Science Magazine suggests that COVID-19 incites a process called a “cytokine storm” within the body, a severe autoimmune response where a person’s immune system overreacts and starts to attack healthy, non-infected body parts. Other studies, such as this one showcased in NPR, show that the virus has a devastating effect on the cardiac system, suggesting it might be a vascular, or blood, disease.

But these theories are just that—theories. COVID-19 is still mysterious, and time will only tell how the disease might present itself further in the human body. For Michelle and Ashley, they deal with the aftereffects—both the mental and physical—to the best of their ability.  

Ashley describes her mental health as impacted heavily by the disease, mentioning her isolation as one of her low points during the disease. “[Quarantining] has bad effects on the human psyche already. By self-isolating and experiencing all the horrible symptoms, I noticed that my mental health took a hard decline,” she says. “You’re alone, surrounded by four walls, you eat all your meals alone, you cry hoping that it’ll pass. You don’t get to turn towards your loved ones for emotional support either.”

The continued mental and physical effects of COVID-19 remain to be seen as vaccines get distributed and COVID-19 cases come down. Post COVID-19 symptoms might be seen as a new chronic illness, one complete with neurological, physical, and mental symptoms. One thing is for sure though—COVID-19 is not a simple common cold. It’s something a lot more mysterious and terrifying than that.

*Names have been changed to protect the identity of the interviewees

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