CHICAGO (CBS) — We have learned a lot about the pain and frustration of COVID-19. Labored breathing, loss of taste and smell, headaches, and other symptoms can take many, many days to overcome.
But a growing number of patients are suffering from “long COVID”, with symptoms lasting for months or more.
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CBS 2’s Audrina Bigos introduces us to a local COVID “long hauler” and some of the specialists helping her.
At 47, Dan Gervase of New Lenox led a healthy lifestyle; but it all fell apart when he got COVID-19 in March 2021.
“I didn’t think it was going to affect me as badly as it was,” he said. “It gradually took a hard turn, took a really hard turn.”
Dan spent six days at Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn, but when he got home, his symptoms came with him.
“Physically, I felt like I was on death’s door,” he said. “Like I said, the pneumonia, my body was just lethargic. I was just in pain.
Almost a year later, it’s not over.
“I’m better, let’s say, but I’m not frozen. I am far from where I was,” he said.
It is estimated that a third of COVID patients, like Dan, become COVID long haulers. They’re COVID-free, but they’re still battling symptoms.
“They prevent them from doing their activities of daily living. They prevent them from taking care of their families, and even from going to work. Some patients can’t even get out of bed,” said Dr. Rachel Welbel, physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist at Advocate Christ Medical Center.
Persistent symptoms range from shortness of breath and joint pain to racing heartbeat, loss of taste and smell, etc. And it can happen to any COVID patient.
“The struggle for the patient is that the severity of the initial infection sometimes doesn’t really predict its degree and the severity of some of the symptoms,” said Dr. Sarah Usmani, a pulmonologist at Advocate Christ Medical Center.
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Dan still has breathing issues, but the worst lingering symptoms are memory loss and brain fog.
For those asking what it’s like, he compared it to zoning and staring into space, but not being able to get out.
It all brought Dan back to Christ Medical Center and the COVID-19 Recovery Clinic, where a team of specialists are helping patients cope.
“Because each patient is very, very complicated and each has had a very different journey, we use specific therapies; such as speech therapy, physiotherapy, occupational therapy. We focus on different medications and supplements, and a lot of education,” Welbel said.
Because Dan’s problems were word-centric, the clinic gave him a huge workbook with exercises called “puzzlers.”
“They force me to think very hard. I do word searches, crosswords,” he said. “It was my mental exercise.”
And he’s learned simple ways to communicate when brain fog takes over.
“I would look for a word, like mask,” he said. “I was using my hands, my gestures, I was writing things down, little bullet points so I could come back to it.”
“This recovery course is very rough, and it’s not in a straight line,” Welbel said.
Dan says what keeps him going is his family, friends and a new perspective.
“Not everything is so critical. It’s not all life or death anymore. I kind of went through life or death, and I managed to get through it. There are going to be obstacles, there there are still obstacles, but I will get through it,” he said.
Welbel said most of the long haulers treated at the clinic were unvaccinated when they came down with COVID. She says so many cases can be prevented if people roll up their sleeves.
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Dan was not eligible for the vaccine when he contracted COVID, but has since been fully vaccinated and boosted, and hopes others will do the same.