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Our pandemic year: COVID-19 long-haulers are still living with the disease

  • Wayne Tanner, 61, who had COVID-19 in late March 2020, watches his neighbors John Yurek, left, and his wife, Loretta, not pictured, carrying groceries to their Claremont, N.H., apartment on Wednesday, March 3, 2021. Tanner’s infection was never confirmed with a test, but after checking his symptoms over the phone with his doctor and a visit from paramedics who checked his vital signs, he isolated inside his apartment for three weeks through a fever cough and loss of taste and smell. “My greatest fear was spreading it to them,” he said of the Yureks. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Rebecca Lovejoy, 59, counts birds outside her kitchen window for Cornell Laboratory’s Project Feeder Watch in Lyme, N.H., Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021. Lovejoy contracted COVID-19 in March 2020 and after a long recovery followed by relapses of symptoms in June and December she has adapted to an indoor lifestyle. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Hanover Terrace assistant business office manager Tammy English, of Claremont, left, shared her experience of lingering fatigue from her COVID-19 infection Wednesday, March 3, 2021, with physical therapy assistant Mark Giovagnoli, right, who also caught the virus. Giovagnoli said he’s “100% recovered” after having a headache for two weeks during his infection in December. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Tammy English, of Claremont, take a phone call in the office at Hanover Terrace where she is assistant business office manager in Hanover, N.H., Wednesday, March 3, 2021. English contracted COVID-19 in late November during an outbreak at the long term care facility, and continues to struggle with fatigue. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Rebecca Lovejoy, 59, a retired psychologist, has largely given up exercise, spending most of her time birding, reading and listening to books, and assembling puzzles at her Lyme, N.H., home where she counted common birds at her feeders Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021. Though she said her elderly parents have been out skiing most days this winter and she misses skiing herself, she has been able to fill her days indoors. “I have not been bored at all this winter,” she said. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Wayne Tanner, 61, a longtime smoker, said climbing the stairs to his second-floor apartment since contracting COVID-19 in March 2020 leaves him winded and ready to sit down. “I’ve never been the same,” said the out-of-work machinist who had a relapse of symptoms in October. “It just wrecked me.” (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 3/6/2021 10:21:11 PM
Modified: 3/6/2021 10:21:09 PM

It was almost a year ago when Rebecca Lovejoy first fell ill.

“I was really, really sick,” the 59-year-old Lyme resident recalled in a phone interview last month.

The initial illness, which began on March 12, 2020, and included a low-grade fever, blinding headache, burning sensation in her lungs and difficulty climbing stairs, lasted somewhere between a week and 10 days for the retired psychologist.

Lovejoy has Hashimoto’s disease, which is when the body’s immune system attacks the thyroid gland, and has a history of pneumonia, but she was otherwise healthy and active before last March. By the end of April, she was able to get outside and start walking.

But by the beginning of June, Lovejoy found herself sick again with a fever, digestive problems, numbness in her arms, dizziness and abnormal swings in her blood pressure. After feeling like she was having a heart attack, she landed in Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center’s emergency department. Tests found some damage to her lungs, but no clear cause for her symptoms.

With rest and time, Lovejoy gradually began working out again and going for walks. But in early December, her energy flagged and she “really bottomed out again,” she said.

She appears to be one of the tens of thousands of “long-haulers” across the country who continue to feel the effects of COVID-19 months after they were stricken.

Though Lovejoy never tested positive for COVID-19 — at least in part because early on tests were hard to come by — she said she and her doctor believe that’s the culprit.

‘It has been brutal’

Like Lovejoy, Wayne Tanner, a 61-year-old Claremont resident, first developed symptoms last March of what he believes was COVID-19. He was never tested, but said he called his doctor at Valley Regional Hospital and she determined he had “all the symptoms,” including a fever, cough, dizziness, lack of smell and taste and nausea. She asked him if he had enough food to quarantine for a couple of weeks and advised him to stay at home. Half an hour after that phone call with his doctor, Tanner said paramedics arrived to take his vital signs.

“I didn’t need anything,” Tanner said in a phone interview last month. “I had food, so I was fine.”

Sort of. Though the cough went away within a few days, many of the other symptoms Tanner had early on lingered for months, including nausea, dizziness and balance issues. The fever has come back on and off.

“I just kind of got used to it,” he said.

But then another bout of illness hit him in October, and pain in his knees and shoulders joined his list of symptoms. He saw his doctor in December and she thought he might have arthritis, he said.

“Just rolling over in the bed my shoulders hurts so dang bad it wakes me up,” he said. “I can see how elderly people are dying from this. It has been brutal.”

Tanner, who lives alone, is not working. He’s dug into his retirement savings “so I can carry on.” He makes quick trips to the grocery store for necessities, but otherwise he’s spent the past 12 months reading and lying low. Without a sense of taste or smell, Tanner said he’s taken to buying prepared meals.

“I don’t cook anymore,” he said.

Loss of energy

For Tammy English, a 52-year-old Claremont resident who works in the business office at Hanover Terrace nursing home, the symptoms that began a few days before Thanksgiving initially felt like bronchitis.

She went to DHMC and a COVID-19 test came back positive. She was told to stay home from work for 10 days. She quarantined at home. Her husband, as well as her granddaughter, who had recently spent the night, subsequently tested positive.

“It was horrific,” she said of the initial infection.

English, who has asthma but is otherwise healthy, was flat out for about a month with a fever, body aches and a persistent cough. Fortunately, her husband, who is a driver for Advance Transit, had milder symptoms and was able to care for her, she said.

“I think that the worst part for me was the anxiety every morning,” she said. With her first breath, she would assess whether “it settled into my lungs.”

About a month after her symptoms started, English returned to Hanover Terrace, which had an outbreak beginning around Thanksgiving that left eight residents dead. Two weeks after returning to work, her cough went away and by February, her primary lingering symptom was fatigue.

“I still go to bed early,” she said. “I don’t have the energy that I had.”

While health care providers have learned more about long-haulers as time has passed, questions still remain about what causes it and how best to treat it.

“Most people who have COVID-19 recover completely within a few weeks,” said Dr. Elizabeth Talbot, a D-H infectious disease specialist and deputy state epidemiologist for New Hampshire, during a virtual roundtable on “The Experience of Having COVID” last month.

But Talbot noted that some patients — even those who initially have mild symptoms — can still feel the effects of their illness for weeks or months after the initial infection. Lingering symptoms vary person to person, but in some cases include fatigue, difficulty breathing, cough, joint aches, chest pain, muscle aches, headaches, loss of senses of smell and taste, memory and concentration problems, insomnia, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Cause unclear

It’s not yet clear what causes symptoms to linger. It may be due to organ damage from the acute infection, continued inflammation, ongoing viral activity or something related to the antibody response, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Efforts to understand the causes of long-term effects of COVID-19 may be further complicated by declines in people’s physical and mental abilities due to their illness, as well as people’s underlying health conditions or lifestyle changes they’ve made to adapt to the pandemic, according to the CDC’s website. Multi-year studies will be necessary to fully understand what’s going on, the CDC said.

“We still have a lot to learn about the more chronic complications,” said Dr. Jose Mercado, a Dartmouth-Hitchcock infectious disease specialist, in a phone interview last month.

So far, Mercado said long-term effects of COVID-19 seem to fall into three categories, including cardiovascular issues such as inflammation of the heart; lung scarring, which can cause fatigue and shortness of breath with exertion; and neurological problems such as “brain fog.”

At D-H, physicians from a range of specialties, including cardiology, pulmonology and neurology, are working together to sort out how to best to collaborate to support patients facing these challenges, perhaps by utilizing telehealth, he said. Down the road, D-H, along with other academic medical centers, may participate in a study to better understand the long-term effects of COVID-19, he said.

There’s “definitely a growing interest in that,” Mercado said.

‘You have to make the most of something like this’

After her most recent relapse in December, Lovejoy, the Lyme resident, gave up exercise altogether.

“Exercise by its very nature creates inflammation,” Lovejoy said. And a “weakened body can’t deal with that.”

Exercise for Lovejoy is a way of getting outside, taking in fresh air and as a way to “get your yayas out and clear your head.” It’s been especially hard to miss the ski season this year, she said.

Her sacrifice appears to be paying off. In recent weeks as she’s continued to lie low, she said she’s seen improvement in her symptoms; her head is clearer and she has more energy.

She said she feels fortunate that she doesn’t have to work and that her husband is around to do the heavy lifting and care for her during the toughest times of her illness. These days her activities include grocery shopping for her elderly parents, cooking, reading, listening to books on tape, doing jigsaw puzzles and birdwatching.

“You have to make the most of something like this,” she said.

It’s been scary and frustrating at times over the past year not knowing what she’s up against. She’s found comfort and solace in reading about the growing understanding of the long-term effects of the disease. She said she hopes that the focus on long-term symptoms related to COVID-19 also helps shed light on other chronic conditions such as fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome.

Last month, Lovejoy started walking again, taking small trips down her driveway. Some days it feels fine, but other days she gets dizzy from the effort. Having been through this cycle before, she said she knows what to expect.

“This time around, I’m not going to push myself because it’s not worth it,” she said. Still, she plans to mark the anniversary of the onset of her initial illness on March 12 with a short snowshoe.

“I’ve always felt optimistic about it,” she said of her recovery. “I believe in the body’s ability to heal if you listen to it.”

Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at ndoyleburr@vnews.com or 603-727-3213.




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