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It’s been a year since COVID-19 really hit New York. But some of the first locals to catch the virus are still experiencing debilitating symptoms that have made it impossible to live life as they were — leading to job loss and an inability to read or study, let alone exercise.
“We don’t understand why the body is responding in this way,” said Dr. David Putrino, Director of Rehabilitation Innovation for The Mount Sinai Health, who researches these so-called “long-haul” patients. He estimated that about 90 percent of participants in the hospital’s long-hauler program, which has a median age of 42, didn’t require hospitalization while they had COVID.
“Now, what we’re seeing is, in these less severe cases [of the virus] — much younger, disproportionately previously fit and healthy [patients] — there’s extreme response after the acute [initial] symptoms have gone,” Dr. Putrino told The Post.
Here, four New Yorkers — all of whom say they were in good health before and none of whom were hospitalized with the virus — reveal the hopelessness and isolation caused by their long-haul cases of COVID.
‘I’m nervous about my brain’
A year after catching COVID-19, Devin Russell hasn’t been able to return to work managing a wellness center and medical practice in the Hamptons. “My nervous system is royally screwed up,” he said. “At night I have to alternate between icing and applying a heating pad to my head,” for the shooting pain. “It feels like your nerves are misfiring, like you can’t think straight.”
To soothe the aches, the 35-year-old Southampton resident spends about 90 minutes a day in a hyperbaric tank that rents for $549 a month and uses an oxygen tank and ozone generator to “kill pathogens and help clear my head.
“My whole life revolves around [COVID health complications],” he said. It’s a far cry from his former life of constant activity — including playing in two basketball leagues, biking, working out with weights.
“I can’t push myself too much. Even walking half a mile could inflame my nervous system,” said the unmarried Russell, adding that he has dropped from 172 to 150 pounds. “It’s debilitating. I’m nervous about my brain.” He’s started CovidCastaways.org, a website of resources for long-haulers.
‘When I wake up, I feel like there’s an earthquake’
Helen Thompson Buffong is 46, but “It’s like I turned 80 overnight,” said the mom of two kids, ages 6 and 8, who she can no longer keep up with. “I don’t have the stamina. I have to wave goodbye at the door rather than go to the park.”
The married Brooklynite got sick on April 2, and had been unable to work as a part-time student-support advisor until last week. “I get hives and swelling every day, all over. I always have an Epipen and steroids with me in case my face starts to swell.”
Neuropathy causes a relentless internal vibration in her whole body. “When I wake up, I feel like there’s an earthquake every day,” she said. “A doctor said it can take years, if I heal at all.”
‘COVID is like an abusive partner’
Marissa Oliver experienced her first “breathing attack” — a 10-hour-long constriction around her lungs and heart — during her initial battle with COVID last March.
Now she’s still in fear of having one. “I’ve been referring to COVID as an abusive partner, because as soon as I step out of line and do something … I’m punished,” said the arts administration professional, 36, from Greenpoint. The attacks are bookended by symptoms including fatigue and dizzy spells — and can stem from stress, walking too far or even just talking. The most recent attack was triggered after she received her first dose of the COVID vaccine.
Now she uses an inhaler daily, and goes for regular treatments like musculoskeletal therapy — normally recommended for athletes and performing artists who incur repetitive-stress injuries — recommended by her doctor at Mount Sinai’s Center for Post-COVID Care.
“It was the first time I spoke to doctors who completely believed me and were like, ‘This is what we can do for you,’” she said.
‘I take 40 milligrams of melatonin at night, which is ridiculous’
“I feel like I’m still me, just less so — which is terrifying,” said Leigh Jerome, a Bushwick resident in her 50s, who fell ill on March 5, 2020.
What began with a cough and sore throat led to bilateral pneumonia — and long-haul symptoms with weeks-long relapses. They include full-body rashes, heart-rate fluctuations, dizziness and a fatigue that fully drains her. She now takes some 25 medications and supplements at night just to sleep. “I take 40 milligrams of melatonin at night, which is ridiculous,” said Jerome, who’s married with no kids. (A more typical dose is 5 mg.)
Before contracting COVID, Jerome, the founder of the nonprofit gallery Relational Space, spent her afternoons in her art studio, creating pieces out of metal.
“The idea of going up and cutting a piece of metal and grinding it … just thinking about it puts me into a relapse,” she said. “I do try to at least sit in the studio, which I know sounds a little absurd, but it’s part of who I am.”
Beginning April 29, Relational Space will hold a virtual immersive installation, “Long COVID — We Are Here!” to raise awareness and urge for more research and therapeutics.
“The only thing that keeps me from complete despair is that I keep a positive attitude,” Jerome said. “I do believe that I’m going to get well.”
“The only thing that keeps me from complete despair over is that I keep a positive attitude,” Jerome said. “I do believe that I’m going to get well.”
‘I don’t have the ability to learn anything’
Before getting sick last March, Nia Raquelle Smith was in the process of applying to PhD programs to study food culture. Today, the 36-year-old Navy veteran, who lives in Bedford-Stuyvesant, can only read three pages on a good day.
“I don’t have the ability to learn anything, and I have to figure out ‘How am I going to complete my research?’” said Smith.
During the summer, she was on a panel to discuss her research, but was too afraid to open her mouth because of the brain fog. “I let everyone else lead the conversation,” said Smith.
Over the past year, she said, the single Smith has experienced 57 COVID-related complications; she still experiences twitching, an intermittent internal vibration and so much fatigue that just getting out of bed in the morning requires her to lie back down. She uses an inhaler and takes several medications and supplements each day.
“I don’t think most people can imagine what that’s like,” said Smith, who works in nonprofit database administration.
“I would like to be optimistic and have more days where I say to myself ‘I’m going to get through this,’ ” she said. “But then if I wake up and it’s a really bad day, there’s a good chance I’m in the corner crying and wondering if this is my new normal.”
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