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Life with chronic COVID-19 symptoms has taken a toll on these St. Albertans

Long-term effects can be debilitating and isolating, residents say.
Christina Herbers was diagnosed with COVID-19 last December, but while most of her symptoms resolved within three weeks, other symptoms persisted over the following months. BRITTANY GERVAIS/St. Albert Gazette

Chantal Dussault's lingering COVID-19 symptoms are so severe that she was forced to stop working this year.

The 43-year-old single mom and her daughter tested positive for the virus last October, when Dussault's symptoms got to a point where she woke up in the night and couldn't breathe. She was hospitalized three times with COVID-related pneumonia and now lives with symptoms of chronic asthma. 

Doctors tested her lung function, but it came back normal, she said. So far, doctors don't have an explanation as to why she is still experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 months after her diagnosis. 

"I am seeing a respiratory specialist because they can't get the asthma under control," Dussault said. "It's like I'm in a long, non-stop episode."

Dussault is one of many people dealing with the frustration of lingering symptoms of COVID-19 months after diagnosis. Post-COVID conditions are a wide range of new, returning, or ongoing health problems experienced by people for more than four weeks after first being infected with the virus, according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC). 

Dussault said she's looking into a new medication doctors told her could help ease her asthma, but the injections cost a minimum of $1,500 a month.

"Because I've been so sick, I haven't had help from medical insurance because of all the meds I've been paying. It maxed out in January," she said. Her insurance doesn't renew for another three months. "I can't work full-time or even half-time, so I have to use up my benefits just so I can try to make ends meet."

Doctors were able to step in and file an application with Freedom Support Services, a health-care staffing agency, to help cover her medical expenses, she said. She was also able to get support for her daughter, who is dealing with a lot of anxiety since her mom's diagnosis, at the St. Albert Family Resource Centre.

But her experience has taken a toll. Dussault wakes up wheezing with blue lips because of a lack of oxygen in her blood. She finds herself getting tired easier now, she has trouble sleeping, and experiences brain fog. Still, Dussault technically falls under the "recovered" category of COVID-19 case-tracking data. 

"No one's talking about the long term," she said.

Research into COVID-19 long-term symptoms is still early but ongoing. University of Alberta researchers are working with more than 220 COVID-19 patients for a study to learn how the COVID-19 virus affects some of the body’s most vital organs.

“Certainly the most common issues people have with COVID-19 are lung infection and shortness of breath. There’s also a lot of evidence that COVID-19 affects people’s brain and memory. There is also evidence of heart damage in up to 45 per cent of hospitalized patients with COVID-19,” said Ian Paterson, a cardiologist and professor of medicine with the U of A, in a press release.

James Dean, founder of Active Physio in St. Albert, said the clinic began offering a rehabilitation program specifically to treat patients with long-term COVID-19 symptoms in December. This was done through a program created by the Lifemark health group with training from the College of Physiotherapists.

"Some of the patients just needed a graded exercise program to get them back. Those are the easier ones to work with. But other patients were presenting with concussion-like symptoms," Dean said. "The truth is, we're still learning."

Dean estimated Active Physio sees about five to seven patients per week dealing with long-term symptoms post-COVID. Each person is different in how the virus has affected them, meaning they require individualized treatment plans, he said. A slow, gradual return to exercise with a close eye on heart rate has helped for some patients. 

"If their heart rate starts spiking to 145, 150 (beats per minute), that's where we stop and we take a one-minute, two-minute, 10-minute rest, whatever it takes, to get them back down. Sometimes that's a painfully slow process, but that slow, graded approach is really the only way to tackle it, from my early experience," he said. 

Still recovering

Christina Herbers was diagnosed with COVID-19 last December, but while most of her symptoms resolved within three weeks, other symptoms persisted over the following months. She has yet to regain her sense of taste or smell, and her heartbeat skyrockets even with light movement.

"I'll be walking in my yard, or about to go on a bike ride, and my heart rate will spike to 170. It'll stay at 170 for about 10 to 20 minutes no matter what I do," the 43-year-old said. The normal heart rate for an adult ranges anywhere from 60 to 100 beats per minute. 

"This one time I was walking and it happened, and I basically dropped to a child's pose position."

Doctors told Herbers she had tachycardia and scheduled her for some tests with the possibility of surgery in the future. Not knowing why this is happening, or what to expect, has been stressful, she said. 

"I'm called a recovered patient, but I'm not recovered yet. We're still experiencing challenges due to COVID. So I understand, we all know the pandemic's hard and restrictions are hard, but they're all there for a reason."

For Aly Virani, 42, his experience with the virus landed him in the hospital with what doctors told him was COVID-19-related pneumonia. He spent six days in hospital, three in the intensive care unit, last November. His wife and two kids also tested positive for the virus.

"My blood oxygen level was down to 82 per cent at the lowest point. Basically, once you drop below 80 per cent, they put you in a coma," Virani said.

Once Virani was stabilized and had time to recover, he was released from hospital and sent home. But six months later, he's still dealing with breathing issues because of the damage COVID-19 caused to his lungs.

"Neither of (the doctors) were able to really give a definite timeline, or even say whether I'll be 100-per-cent recovered at any point."

Now, Virani said he wears his face mask out of concern for others more than himself. 

"(My wife and I) always masked up more for our own protection before. But now, I find we mask up more for other people's protection," he said.

"I do think it is important for people to know that reactions (to COVID-19) are different. Just because you didn't have a big reaction, doesn't mean your neighbour doesn't have a big reaction. And if I were to infect them, how bad it could be for them?"

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