Living with long Covid: ‘I feel like I am on a long road to recovery’

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Thousands of people worldwide are suffering from the lingering effects of Covid-19 – from severe fatigue and struggling to breathe to coping with memory or hair loss. Health24 spoke to a number of long haulers. This is Phathutshedzo’s story.

Phathutshedzo, 40

Contracted Covid-19 in June 2021.

I was very careful throughout the first and second wave and I refused to leave the house during the first lockdown. I avoided people as much as I could, even within my workplace – I would close the door to my office and if I was required to interact with other employees, I never took off my mask. I complained of the dry skin on my face because of the mask, but I knew it was still better than having Covid.

But in June 2021, I woke up with sore muscles and my body felt achy. Everyone said it was likely due to tiredness because we had just had my grandmother’s funeral two days before. In hindsight, we suspect she might have contracted Covid as she had a minor cold, which escalated very quickly, and then she passed on. My sister and sister-in-law also tested positive around this time.

I had a scratchy throat and I kept drinking more water. To combat my exhaustion, I drank Red Bulls and felt a bit better. But the following morning my muscles still ached, and my fatigue and cough had worsened. I had also developed a headache. I went to my doctor who did a Covid test – which turned out to be positive. 

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Put on treatment

I received antibiotics and other medication, but around nine days later I suddenly had shortness of breath. And I was still very tired, so I decided to go back to my doctor. He could see I was struggling to breathe so he gave me four steroids to take and said he would monitor me. If my condition didn’t approve, I would have to go to the hospital, but within 30 minutes of taking the pills, I started feeling better.

I was told to continue taking the steroids for another seven days. I got better, but one month later, I started feeling as if something was sitting on my chest. My doctor told me that it was as a result of my Covid infection, and that the shortness of breath and feeling of heaviness on my chest would eventually end. 

On 31 July 2021, my family and I took a road trip. While we were on the trip, I was struggling to breathe and my hands and feet were tingling. At that time, I didn’t know if it was an anxiety attack or just part of the long-term effect of Covid. We had to stop the car and I got out and walked in order to get my blood flowing. I also took more steroids. 

Getting a second opinion

I decided to see another doctor to get a second opinion, so I made an appointment with my gynaecologist who previously practised as a GP. She did a physical examination and noticed there was still a bit of wheezing in my lungs, and she confirmed that it was as a result of my Covid infection.

She said that it does take longer for Covid patients to heal completely, but she gave me medication as well as an asthma pump to use when I had difficulty breathing. I used it for about 10 days into August 2020, and felt much better. She also advised me not to take steroids all the time, and only on the days that it was really necessary. 

The feeling of something sitting on my chest is still there, especially if I’m lying down or if I’m seated – if I’m standing it’s usually fine. Now that I’ve recognised that, I try to avoid sitting for long periods of time. 

I’ve also been getting pins and needles, and this also happens if I sit for a long period, like 30 to 40 minutes. When this happens, it feels like blood is not flowing to my hands and feet. If I lie down, I’ll feel the pins and needles in my hands and feet within just a few minutes – this didn’t happen before Covid.

Even two months after my infection, I still couldn’t do two simple things at once, such as walk and talk at the same time because I’d start having breathing difficulty. We used to joke around saying that I must choose just one thing that I want to do because I couldn’t do both simultaneously. But that’s getting better.

I used to exercise about three times per week before my Covid infection and we’d frequently take walks as a family. But after having Covid, I didn’t really exercise for months. By August, I was still not where I wanted to be.

I could hardly walk a kilometre and couldn’t do too many tasks in one day.

My gynaecologist encouraged me to try to walk again so that I could get my heart pumping and reduce my resting heart rate. When I had Covid, it would go up to 170 beats per minute. It has slowly improved – I’m now at about 70 beats per minute, which is the normal resting heartbeat. I’m aiming to walk five kilometres per day. I’ve also stopped using the asthma pump. She said that my symptoms will gradually go away, and I’ve noticed that I’m getting better with each passing day, which is a good sign.

Anxiety attacks post-Covid

Coping after Covid is very hard because you still feel very sick, especially with the shortness of breath. I also never had anxiety attacks before – they started only after having Covid which was caused by the realisation that I couldn’t breathe. 

The most painful thing for me, however, was witnessing the fear in my children when I was sick. You could actually see the fear in their faces. That, in turn, made me very scared and caused me to panic. It’s a whole different experience. I think kids know what happens to people who contract Covid, and watching you not being able to do anything for yourself makes it scary for them. That’s why I’m trying very hard to be active and to show them that I’m back, that I can walk, and we can do things together again, so that they don’t focus on the fact that I’m still sick.

I feel like I am on a long road to recovery, and I am really hoping for the best.

*Many people suffer from the long-term effects of Covid-19, many months later. If you are one of those people and wish to share your experience, let us know, and your story can be told in our Living with long Covid series. You are not alone. E-mail your stories to zakiyah.ebrahim@24.com

*For more Covid-19 research, science and news, click here. You can also sign up for our Daily Dose newsletter here.

READ | If you’re living with long Covid, a Stellenbosch University researcher needs your help 

READ | Living with long Covid: An expert tells us more about the research being done in South Africa

READ | Long Covid: More than 200 symptoms identified, many with a negative effect on work-life

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