There are good reasons that survivors of COVID-19 have taken to calling themselves long haulers. All of those reasons are debilitating symptoms of the disease.
Long after the health care system has deemed them recovered, past COVID-19 patients are still burdened with the long-term effects of the illness. There’s the extreme fatigue, chronic coughs, colds and respiratory troubles, headaches, brain fog, body aches, unexplained high heart rates, chest pains, dizziness, kidney problems, and on and on.
Audrey Vanderhoek, an RN who lives in Chilliwack, is one of those survivors. As a long hauler who struggles day after day, she wants everyone to know what “recovered” really means.
For her, and countless thousands of others, it doesn’t mean you’re actually better.
“I want people to start thinking a little differently about COVID,” she says. She’s doing her daily walk and talking on her cell phone for the interview, but it sounds like she’s been running. She gasps, takes deep breaths every few words, and sometimes even struggles with her train of thought.
Her symptoms began at the end of April and she was diagnosed positively with COVID-19 at the beginning of May. Her acute phase of shedding the virus lasted the entire month, until she had her first negative result.
“And I’ve been chronic until now. I would be considered one of the completely healed cases in terms of statistics.”
She thought she was alone at first, but Vanderhoek reached out online and found a whole network of long haulers who are struggling post-infection. As their struggles grow month by month, they are getting connected and getting louder.
They want health authorities to recognize the long-term effects they are collectively seeing. Because COVID-19 is so new, the focus has largely been on understanding its spread, and stopping it. The long haulers are hoping researchers will look to them to learn just how harmful the virus is.
In addition to being a nurse in another city, Vanderhoek has a background in alternative medicine. She has been seeing a naturopath recently, and has been focusing on healing, staying positive, and keeping as active as possible. She is currently able to walk about two hours a day, but needs to keep inclines and speed to a minimum so she doesn’t go beyond her physical limits. If she pushes herself too hard, symptoms like a sore throat will come back.
Still, she’s finally starting to feel a bit better.
“Right now, I have to say as of about two weeks ago, I feel like I’ve turned a corner. Up until two weeks ago, I was still having daily chest pains, my heart rate was elevating for no reason, I had day-to-day shortness of breathe, fatigue, brain fog and memory issues. Now I feel clearer.”
But it could be a year or more before she really heals, she’s been told. She’s not sure if she will get back to running and martial arts and all of the other high-energy activities she once enjoyed. Yet, she’s hopeful.
And that positivity is something she wants other long haulers to embrace if possible. On the Facebook groups where she has found support, she has read “an incredible array of experiences.” And while she had no underlying health issues prior to COVID-19, and is expected to fully recover one day, she says others aren’t so lucky.
“I feel that COVID is highlighting the areas in our bodies that are weak, but not only the areas in our bodies, because it’s a global experience. I think it’s opened a Pandora’s box of systemic problems as well.”
She says the whole pandemic may change how we look at health care, for individuals and for larger communities and the world.
“We can choose the type of change we want to create, and for myself, I’m choosing health, a whole new level of health.”
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