One in 5. It almost seems unimaginable that this is the real number of people who are struggling with long COVID, especially considering how many people in the United States have had COVID-19 at this point (more than 96 million).
Even more unimaginable at this time is that it’s happening to me. I’ve experienced not only the disabling effects of long COVID, but I’ve also seen, firsthand, the frustration of navigating diagnosis and treatment. It’s given me a taste of what millions of other patients are going through.
Vaxxed, masked, and (too) relaxed
I caught COVID-19 (probably Omicron BA.5) that presented as sniffles, making me think it was probably just allergies. However, my resting heart rate was up on my Garmin watch, so of course I got tested and was positive.
With my symptoms virtually nonexistent, it seemed, at the time, merely an inconvenience, because I was forced to isolate away from family and friends, who all stayed negative.
But 2 weeks later, I began to have urticaria – hives – after physical exertion. Did that mean my mast cells were angry? There’s some evidence these immune cells become overactivated in some patients with COVID. Next, I began to experience lightheadedness and the rapid heartbeat of tachycardia. The tachycardia was especially bad any time I physically exerted myself, including on a walk. Imagine me – a lover of all bargain shopping – cutting short a trip to the outlet mall on a particularly bad day when my heart rate was 140 after taking just a few steps. This was orthostatic intolerance.
Then came the severe worsening of my migraines – which are often vestibular, making me nauseated and dizzy on top of the throbbing.
I was of course familiar with these symptoms, as professor and chair of the department of rehabilitation medicine at the Joe R. and Teresa Lozano Long School of Medicine at University of Texas Health Science Center, San Antonio. I developed a post-COVID recovery clinic to help patients.
So I knew about postexertional malaise (PEM) and postexertional symptom exacerbation (PESE), but I was now experiencing these distressing symptoms firsthand.
Clinicians really need to look for this cardinal sign of long COVID as well as evidence of myalgic encephalomyelitis or chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS). ME/CFS is marked by exacerbation of fatigue or symptoms after an activity that could previously be done without these aftereffects. In my case, as an All-American Masters miler with several marathons under my belt, running 5 miles is a walk in the park. But now, I pay for those 5 miles for the rest of the day on the couch or with palpitations, dizziness, and fatigue the following day. Busy clinic day full of procedures? I would have to be sitting by the end of it. Bed by 9 PM was not always early enough.