Long COVID takes toll on Papillion woman, likely thousands of Nebrascans | papillion

Roseann Moring
Flatwater Free Press

Cindy Vanek was supposed to be recovering from COVID-19, but something wasn’t right.

The Papillion office coordinator contracted the virus just before Halloween 2020, a case she describes as mild to moderate – it rendered her unconscious for several days but she never felt the need to go to the hospital.

But two weeks later, new symptoms emerged. Her heart started racing and wouldn’t stop. She felt dizzy. Bad. Always tired. Her whole body trembled. Her fatigue prevented her from doing much more than working on the couch.

“It was kind of a mess,” she said. “It just wasn’t working like all my systems were going haywire.”

Vanek, now 41, is one of millions of Americans who have or are now experiencing post-COVID symptoms, a phenomenon so common it has a name – long COVID.

Studies suggest that between 10% and 40% of people suffering from COVID infection experience some level of post-COVID symptoms.

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The Long COVID Initiative estimates that 131,000 Nebraskans have had post-COVID symptoms and that 43,500 of them have been disabled as a result. This group’s model puts the cost of the disease at $2.3 billion in Nebraska alone.

Nebraska Medical Center opened a post-COVID clinic in March 2021. It has already treated 250 patients.

“There’s not much that can’t be a symptom,” said Dr. Andy Vasey, who runs the clinic. “Post-COVID symptoms can range from the top of your head to the bottom of your feet and everything in between.”

And they range from an annoyance to a complete debilitation, Vasey said.

Vasey often sees patients with heart or lung problems, such as chest pain and shortness of breath. But often a scan doesn’t show any structural problems with these body parts.

A new study suggests some Long COVID cases are caused by nerve damage, although doctors still don’t know much about the causes of these symptoms.

The good news, he said, “Nerves can relearn things and function again.”

And usually the symptoms get better on their own, he said.

In October 2020, Vanek tried her best to avoid COVID-19. She read news articles about other 40-year-olds who had contracted it and died. Though otherwise healthy her entire life, she felt it was important to be careful.

“Health is something I value,” she said. “The idea of ‚Äč‚Äčthis virus just scared me.”

So she worked from home, ordered groceries and double masked.

But she had a part-time personal job, and that’s probably where she signed him.

She tested positive on October 15 and her symptoms emerged two days later on a Saturday. COVID-19 itself was bad enough. She had a fever, cough, loss of taste and smell. But she got over it.

“I’m young enough, that’s probably what they mean when they say you’ll get it and you’ll be fine,” she thought.

Then, exactly two weeks later, on Halloween, she was sitting at a desk when her heart rate shot up to over 130 beats per minute. Doctors call it tachycardia, she later learned, when the heart beats too fast. She became dizzy, light-headed and nauseous.

Over the next few months, Vanek experienced similar episodes almost every day.

“There’s immediately this ‘something’s wrong,’ and you can hear his heart racing. I felt flushed and sweaty and super dizzy and super nauseous. I felt so wrong, there was nothing I could do,” she said. “I would just lie down and get it under control.”

Sometimes she recovered within half an hour; other times it was out of service for hours.

From October 2020 to early summer 2021, a litany of physical symptoms made it difficult for her to function.

Her nausea peaked in January with bouts of severe vomiting. By March she lost 60 pounds.

Bouts of drowsiness and dizziness continue to this day.

Fatigue prevented her from doing much other than lying down and working on her computer. Even walking through her apartment to shower proved difficult.

Weakness came with the virus, and this later turned into weakness because her body was no longer conditioned for normal activity.

She is still short of breath at times after doing minimal activities like washing dishes.

Her retina was damaged by the virus. Now she is wearing glasses for the first time in her life.

Her sense of smell was also severely impaired. For example, she would perceive phantom odors when applying lotion and smelling gasoline.

Some of her symptoms are mental in nature, and these too interfere with her life.

Vanek’s fear was higher than ever.

She is now becoming noticeably more confused and experiencing what Long COVID patients often describe as “brain fog.”

In April 2021, she received the COVID-19 vaccine. Doctors have reported that some patients see improvement after vaccination. Vanek did, although it’s impossible to directly attribute it to the vaccine.

She returned to work that summer but took advantage of a combination of illness and furlough to work just four days a week. Even that wiped her out, and she spent the three-day weekend recovering.

Even now, as she nears her two-year anniversary of contracting COVID, her capacity is limited. Once a runner, she now celebrates a 30-minute walk. Cleaning her apartment used to be a tiring morning, now she breaks the housework down into smaller tasks over several days. She’s lost the energy to go out with friends, go kayaking, enjoy life the way she used to.

Vanek has seen a variety of doctors in the Methodist Health System. You can treat her symptoms – for example, she is taking medication for her heart palpitations and her heart rate has mostly returned to normal.

But frustratingly, she doesn’t know when — or if — she’ll return to her former abilities. Nobody knows the long-term prognosis or the after-effects of an illness that has only existed for two years.

“I’m just different than I was,” she said. “I feel like I’ve aged and slowed down.”

In the meantime she has learned to live with a new disability. She knows which activities can sap her energy the next day. She has to make decisions: Can I afford it today even though I know I might not be able to function tomorrow?

She spends a lot of time reading and watching TV.

dr Kevin Reichmuth, a pulmonologist and critical care specialist who treats patients at Bryan Health and a private clinic in Lincoln, said it’s frustrating not being able to provide answers to patients like Vanek. There is no good way to predict the course of symptoms or who will suffer from them.

“What has been difficult is that we don’t know how this damage is going to play out,” he said. “We hope it will continue to heal.”

A clear recommendation: get vaccinated.

“Preventing post-COVID is one of the reasons I encourage people to get vaccinated,” he said. “We know there are protections, even from getting post-COVID.”

He dubbed it “the pandemic after the pandemic” because of its scope and severity.

“The hope is that in the coming years we will have more answers and treatments and whatnot,” he said.

Vanek has found company online among people who have experienced Long COVID. It is reassuring to know that she is not alone. And she compares notes to a former roommate who also had post-COVID symptoms, although her friend recovered faster.

But day by day she finds that many people have not heard about Long COVID and some people don’t seem to believe her.

She has a particularly difficult time when people treat the use of masks as a political issue.

She was yelled at while walking through downtown Omaha wearing her mask on a cold day.

“You don’t have to, ma’am!” someone yelled at her. “That’s no use!”

This stranger didn’t know her story and she tried to shake it off.

“There are people out there who are still very badly affected by COVID and the pandemic and have not been able to move on because they are dealing with challenges and maybe grief,” she said. “Have patience and compassion for people who have not recovered.”

The Flatwater Free Press is Nebraska’s premier independent, nonprofit newsroom focused on relevant investigation and reporting.

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