Long-Term Symptoms Of COVID-19 | KERA News

Long-Term Symptoms Of COVID-19

May 23, 2020
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

When COVID-19 first began its march across the country, we heard that those most at risk were the elderly, particularly those in nursing homes, or people with underlying health conditions. And while that's true, now that we're several months into life with the disease, we're finding out that that isn't the whole story. The virus can strike younger people, people who are otherwise fit and healthy, and the toll it can take on the body and the psyche is profound. Mara Gay found that out the hard way. She's 33 years old, healthy, a runner. But she got sick with COVID in April and she's still recovering. She wrote about her experience in The New York Times, where she's a member of the editorial board. And she is with us now from her home in New York. Mara Gay, thanks so much for being with us.

MARA GAY: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: And I'm glad you're doing better. But at the time you wrote the piece, which is about a week or so ago, you were still recovering a month later. How are you feeling right now?

GAY: Yeah. I'm still not 100%, but I'm, you know, five weeks into what's expected to be a eight-week recovery. And I'm not able to run yet. But I'm walking about 5 miles a day now, so I'm getting there.

MARTIN: I'm certainly glad to hear that. Well, let's go back a bit. You wrote in your piece that the day before you felt symptoms, you ran 3 miles, you walked 10. You raced up the stairs to your fifth-floor apartment. So far, so good. And then what happened? Can you describe what it was like?

GAY: Yeah. So that day, I was feeling, you know, myself, felt really good. And then the next day on April 17, I woke up, and I felt hot and feverish. So I went straight to bed. And, you know, I knew exactly what it was, just living here in New York and reporting about the coronavirus pandemic. And so I, you know, prepared to quarantine for 14 days, as we're told to do. And then unfortunately, the next morning, on April 18, I woke up and I really couldn't get a good breath. It felt like, you know, an elephant was sitting on my chest. And it was pretty scary. So after talking to a couple of friends of mine who are doctors, I headed straight to the emergency room to get checked out.

And fortunately, even though it was a really scary experience, my oxygen was high enough that they were able to release me on my own to manage at home. And essentially the doctor just said to me, I wish there was something I could do for you. Since I had an at-home oximeter, which tests your blood oxygen level and your pulse from your fingertip, I just spent the next two weeks kind of breathing through it hoping that I - my oxygen stayed high enough that I didn't have to go back in for supplemental oxygen because sometimes COVID patients can crash. And that never happened to me. So I just did lots of breathing exercises and stayed at home.

MARTIN: I just want to go back or something you just said, something that you wrote about in your piece. And it really struck me as you said - she said to you, I wish I could do something for you. How did that make you feel when you heard that? Was it frightening?

GAY: You know, I think by that point, I was already pretty afraid. And so once I knew my oxygen was decent was pretty good. It was such a relief that I was going to be able to walk out of that hospital that I think that doctor could have told me anything and I would just be happy to walk out of there on my own two feet and not hear that I need a ventilator, frankly. And I think it was just a hard moment for the doctor and I. We were about the same age it looked. And I think, you know, doctors are used to being able to solve problems, especially for otherwise healthy people. Give someone a pill, a prescription, a treatment. And I think it was a difficult moment for us to kind of just know that I was going to spend the next two weeks hoping not to crash and have to come back.

MARTIN: I want to quote another part of your piece where you make it clear why you wrote it. You said, "I want Americans to understand that this virus is making otherwise young, healthy people very, very sick. I want them to know this is no flu." As you and I are speaking now, we are closing in on almost 100,000 people dead in the United States, more than a million and a half confirmed infections. Do you get the sense that there are people who still don't understand the seriousness of this?

GAY: Sorry. Yes. Yes. I think early on, there was a perception, which is a misperception, that if you were not in a high-risk category, that you might just get a fever for a couple days, maybe a little cough and that would be the end of it. And we know now that this virus can be extremely aggressive with even younger healthy people. I just wanted Americans to understand that they're rolling the dice. When you get something like this, you don't know how your body is going to respond. And the doctors I've spoken to, both for my recovery personally but also just in my reporting, have said that, actually, the - they believe quite firmly that the number of patients with moderate COVID symptoms who are otherwise healthy like me but are managing, you know, weeks or months of pneumonia and other serious complications from this is actually - that number - that group of people is actually far larger than the group of people that is the sickest and in ICUs and on a ventilator. So you really don't know how your body's going to react. And also, you don't want to give this to your family, your friends, your neighbors. And I think just respecting what this virus can do is really important.

MARTIN: I wanted to ask, you know, getting back to the you part of this, You mentioned that you're still recovering, you know, all these weeks later. You have pneumonia and restrictive airways and - reactive airways, asthma, as it were. Apart from the physical symptoms, do you think this experience has changed you in some way? I wonder if you feel like this will stick with you after you recover physically.

GAY: Well, it definitely, definitely will. I don't know all the ways yet. I'm still kind of going through it. But, you know, I thought a lot when I was really sick about the Americans who got sick the same time that I did and didn't recover. I wrote about a few of them. One of them was a 28-year-old woman, Valentina Blackhorse from Arizona. She was a mother and very young obviously and had dreams, her family said, of leading the Navajo Nation. And I think just, you know, being that sick and, you know, I was here in my apartment in New York, and at night, I would have trouble sleeping. I was on my stomach, which is safer when you're having pneumonia symptoms. And I would hear the ambulances and knowing that they were coming for my neighbors, who were in way worse shape than I was.

I think I'm going to be thinking a lot about how to do right by them by living my life to the fullest and trying to pay it forward. And I got a lot of help when I was very sick. I'm still getting a lot of help. So I just want to make sure that, you know, I can be a part of helping others who may not have the same privileges or advantages or family and friends and support that I did. So, you know, along with - from my perch on the editorial board, just really, I'm more passionate than ever about using that platform to help really vulnerable people. And in this case, that's black and brown indigenous Americans.

MARTIN: That's Mara Gay. She's a member of the editorial board for The New York Times. She wrote about her experience with covered 19 for The New York Times. Her piece is called "I Wish I Could Do Something For You, My Doctor Said." Mara Gay, thank you so much for talking to us. And I hope you'll feel even better in the days ahead.

GAY: Thanks so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.