The isolation, fear and lingering uncertainty of life with long-haul COVID

Columbus teacher Laurel Murphy contracted the coronavirus in December 2020 and is still healing from the experience, making her one in a growing number of long COVID patients

Andy Downing
Columbus Alive
File photo

Laurel Murphy contracted COVID-19 in December 2020, and her condition quickly worsened. Over the course of two weeks, Murphy progressed from a fever, intense vomiting and body aches to an acute shortness of breath that led to an emergency room visit and a monthlong stretch at home during which she required oxygen.

“I was severely dehydrated and was having trouble walking. We live in a tiny ranch house, and I couldn’t make it from the bedroom to the bathroom on my own,” Murphy said recently by phone. “My oxygen levels were so low that they dropped into the 60s. (A healthy blood oxygen level varies between 75 and 100 millimeters of mercury). It was the strangest thing, where this weird, dark feeling just came over me, and I don’t even know how to describe it, but it was like, ‘I’m not going to make it.’”

Gradually, though, the supplemental oxygen took effect, along with a regimen of steroids, fever reducers and cough suppressants that forced Murphy to take a different medication every couple of hours around the clock. Over the course of a month, she started to trend in the right direction. 

But even then, new symptoms and causes for alarm continued to surface. Prior to contracting the coronavirus, Murphy was not diabetic, but over the course of her infection, she developed the chronic disease, which studies have shown to develop in more than 14 percent of the people hospitalized with severe COVID. 

She also experienced premature ventricular contractions (PVCs) in her heart (cardiac arrhythmias have been detected in 27 percent of COVID patients), which led to visits with a cardiologist who ultimately deemed them to be neither life-threatening nor life-altering. In addition, Murphy continues to experience reduced stamina and what she described as a "brain fog," which can often leave her hunting for words, a known quantity extending somehow just beyond her grasp.

“My vocabulary recall is different, so I’ll be teaching kids how to write an outline for an essay, and the word 'outline' will completely escape me,” said Murphy, who teaches eighth grade in Columbus.

Through the early and mid-month stages of her recovery, Murphy said she felt increasingly isolated by her experience, with both the intensity of her illness and her range of symptoms falling far outside of what others appeared to experience when infected with COVID. “And then there was a point where I was on a teleconference with one of the doctors through OhioHealth, who was prescribing medications and creating a treatment plan with me, and I started crying, and I said to him, ‘I don’t understand why I’m not getting better,’” Murphy said. “And he said, ‘You’re going to get better, you’re just a long hauler.’ And I was like, ‘I’m a what?’”

Up to that point, Murphy had been unfamiliar with long-haul COVID, or long COVID, a still poorly defined syndrome that can reveal itself in a wide range of symptoms, from fatigue, shortness of breath and impacted memory recall to damage to the heart. While studies vary greatly in terms of the number of people affected, the World Health Organization estimated that 10 to 20 percent of people who contract COVID continue to experience new or lingering symptoms three months after infection, with some of those effects stretching beyond a year.

Most recently, the Washington Post reported today (Wednesday, March 2) that Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine has suffered from long COVID since contracting the virus in the spring of 2020, an experience that led him to introduce a bill designed to research and combat the illness.

Dr. Bharat Marwaha, a cardiologist in Zanesville, Ohio, said he attended to his first long-haul patient early in 2021 — a female pharmacist in her 60s who presented with chest pains after recovering from COVID. Initially, Marwaha thought she might be experiencing some kind of blockage within the heart, but an angiogram came back clear. From there, he experimented with different medications meant to control the heart rate and to mitigate chest pain, along with diuretics, eventually hitting on a combination that provided relief. “I saw her again two weeks ago,” Marwaha said by phone in February, “and when I asked how she was doing, she said she was back to 80 or 90 percent of her usual self, which was gratifying.”

Marwaha said he is currently seeing “six or seven patients” experiencing long-haul COVID, and that the medical profession continues to learn more about a disease that has existed as something of an unknown for much of the pandemic. As a cardiologist, Marwaha said he’s observed COVID patients presenting with disproportionately increased heart rates, even in younger patients in their 30s, in addition to heart palpitations, myocarditis and coronary artery disease, which Marwaha said can be “unmasked” by the coronavirus. 

“These patients may have underlying factors, like blockages in the arteries, and after COVID-19, these diseases may reveal their features,” he said, pointing to a study he read recently in which researchers concluded that a person’s chances of having a heart attack after infection increased by 1.63 times compared to the population that had not been exposed to COVID-19. (Another study published in February by the American College of Cardiology summarized that “COVID-19 is associated with increased risk and population burden of incident cardiovascular disease in the ensuing 12 months.”)

Initially, Marwaha said, these instances of long COVID were not recognized by the medical community but shared among sufferers on social media and online message boards.

This was certainly the case for Murphy, who, after being introduced to the term by a doctor, sought out more information online, only to find institutional medical research lacking at the time. What she did find, however, was an online community via Facebook Groups, one of which has more than 1,400 members, in which long-haulers shared symptoms and mitigation techniques, building a connection that helped erase the sense of isolation she felt in early months after falling ill.

“A lot of people will post, ‘I’m tired. This fatigue is out of this world,’ and at the end of the day there will be comments from 60 people saying, ‘I feel this. I’m with you, too,’” Murphy said. “It was so essential at that point. I felt so isolated, I guess is the right word. You’re just so alone in it, because you don’t know anyone else who has this thing, and you know other people who have the virus and they bounce back, where this virus took such a toll on me.”

With the omicron variant in retreat and mask mandates relaxing both in Ohio and elsewhere (Columbus Public Health has recommended lifting the city mask mandate on Monday, March 7), much of the talk in the media has centered on learning to live with COVID-19 as it becomes endemic. Lost in that conversation, however, are the immunocompromised and others at high risk from the virus, as well as the devastating toll of long COVID, which can surface without warning in anyone who contracts the disease, including those with mild and moderate cases.

“It’s definitely overlooked,” Murphy said. “I mean, just last week I was talking to a coworker, and there was a word I couldn’t come up with in conversation, so I said, ‘Eh, there goes my COVID brain again.’ And she was like, ‘Oh, cut it out. Everybody has had COVID at this point.’ And it was like, ‘Oh, I don’t think you understand.’

"It does seem like people don’t want to talk about it, or they’re so tired of talking about COVID, and they’re tired of the threat and the worry and the fear. But I also feel like some people have no idea what long COVID is, and what it feels like, and what it does to you in a long-term sense, and those [are conversations] we need to have.”