‘Who knows if I’ll be myself again?’ Covid long-haulers turn to Seattle rehab clinic

Covid-19 survivors who continue to experience the long-term effects of the disease can find it difficult to get medical care.

Harborview Medical Center offers a rehabilitation center for Covid long-haulers to help patients get back on their feet. “as much life as possible.”

D

onna Lawson, 47, got Covid last March. At first, it seemed like a mild case. Then, things got worse.

Lawson was hospitalized three days ago with low blood oxygen. And when she got home, she didn’t get better.

“My legs feel like jello all the time — very, very weak,”Lawson is a mother and designer based in West Seattle. “On really bad days and bad times, I’m trudging through concrete is what it feels like — or like there are cinder blocks literally on my feet, or magnets pulling me to the ground.”

Many people who were diagnosed with Covid-19 in the early stages of their lives are still suffering from the symptoms months later. Some people are now seeking treatment at Harborview for Covid. “long-haulers.”

Lawson said she can’t concentrate or remember things. She’s tired all the time and no longer has the energy to make art, or volunteer at her daughter’s school. On a good day, she said, she’s 80% of her old self for a few hours. Other days, she can’t get out of bed.

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“The stuff that gets me really choked up: Who knows if I’ll be myself again?”Lawson stated. “I’m usually a pretty confident person. I really love helping people and I love spreading joy. It’s really hard to do that when you don’t feel joy.”

About 10% of people who are diagnosed with Covid still experience at least one symptom after two months. — and there’s a gender disparity. More women than men suffer from what’s being called long Covid.

They can experience a variety of symptoms, such as shortness of breathing, trouble sleeping, concentrating, and anxiety.

Researchers don’t yet know what causes all of these symptoms. Long-haulers’ immune systems could still be in overdrive. Perhaps their brains are still suffering from lack of oxygen. Doctors say, when they understand long Covid better, they’ll be able to offer more effective treatments.

Lawson was never able to get a Covid test because there weren’t many available at the beginning of the pandemic. Because of that, some doctors haven’t believed that her symptoms are due to long Covid, she said.

“When you have medical professionals pooh-pooh what you’re saying, you can’t help but wonder if you’re crazy,”Lawson attends four or more doctor’s appointments per week.

One person who’s trying to help long-haulers find the care they need is Dr. Aaron Bunnell, a rehabilitation physician at the University of Washington’s Harborview Medical Center.

Bunnell was a covid patient at the outbreak of the pandemic. He worked with them after they were discharged from intensive care units. It became evident over time:

“It’s not just the patients that have been hospitalized and who were very sick that are having long-term symptoms,”Bunnell stated. “We’re seeing this even in patients who may have been sick at home, but now three months later are still struggling.”

caption: Dr. Aaron Bunnell sits in his office at Harborview's Covid clinic on February 5, 2021.

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That’s why Bunnell started a clinic at Harborview that specifically serves Covid long-haulers. It’s one of many such clinics that are popping up across the country.

The clinic is a mix of a medical office and a gym. It has treadmills, parallel bars and other equipment that helps patients regain strength and their ability to walk. Bunnell seems to know everyone who’s here.

Bunnell and his colleagues are experts in the field. rehab medicine. They coordinate complex care and assist patients in their recovery. Bunnell stated that the goal of their team is to help patients go back to work or whatever they did before they got sick.

“We see in our critical illness survivors that, yeah — their heart is still beating, and they’re breathing,”Bunnell stated. “But everything that they valued and was meaningful in their life is now lost. We just want to make sure we’re getting our Covid patients as much life as possible.”

Harborview’s Covid rehabilitation clinic is the only facility of its kind in the region, serving patients from Oregon, Alaska, and Idaho, in addition to Washington. Bunnell said that initially, there were only 40 patients per week, but that the clinic now has 40.

Susan Krikac (a 61-year old optician) receives care at our clinic. Covid took the lives of Krikac and her daughter, 25-years-old, back in July.

Krikac stated that there were nights when Krikac couldn’t breathe and thought she would die. However, things improved over time. She felt that she was finally on the mend by September.

“I started feeling pretty good,” Krikac said. “And I was talking on the phone to a girlfriend one afternoon, telling her that I was about ready to go back to work when I started talking what I would call jibber jabber — I wasn’t making sense. And she said, ‘I think you should put the phone down and call 911.’”

By the time she was admitted to the hospital, she couldn’t even read her doctor’s name, Krikac said.

caption: Susan Krikac holds a small fraction of the medications that she was prescribed while she was positive with Covid-19 at her home on Wednesday, February 17, 2021, in Seattle. After testing positive in July, she is still experiencing various symptoms of Covid-19 today, seven months later, requiring an entirely different set of medications.

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She began to cycle in and out of the emergency department with stroke-like symptoms. She was looking for specialists who could help with her memory loss and inability to focus.

“My personality has definitely changed,” Krikac said. “I don’t laugh. I don’t joke as much as I did. My coworkers said that they miss my sense of humor. I miss my sense of humor.”

Eventually, Krikac ended up at Harborview’s post-Covid clinic. The doctor who coordinated her care decided that Krikac would benefit from more than a few hours sleep each night in order to reduce her memory loss and depression.

“I can only hope that with time, as I start to recover, that my mood will increase,” Krikac said — “that I’ll be able to do some of the things that I used to be able to do.”

Krikac stated that she would like to return to work someday, at most part-time.

Dr. Bunnell stated that he hopes that ongoing research will reveal the causes of these symptoms and provide better treatment options. This will allow more people to return to what they used to do.

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