When the Doctor Is a Covid ‘Long Hauler’

Coronavirus may leave patients with a condition called POTS that makes the heart rate soar after even the mildest activities.

By Shannon Gulliver Caspersen, M.D.

I am a physician who contracted what was initially a fairly mild case of Covid-19 in early March. Seven months later, I remain substantially debilitated, with profound exhaustion and a heart rate that goes into the stratosphere with even the tiniest bits of exertion, such as pouring a bowl of cereal or making a bed. I may never get better, despite receiving the best care available. And there are likely to be thousands more like me.

My early symptoms were fairly typical, with a sore throat, headache, body aches and fatigue. When I developed shortness of breath and chest pain, an emergency department physician I was seeing via telemedicine recommended I go to the E.R. My chest X-ray and oxygen saturation were normal, so I was sent home with an inhaler and was on the mend within two weeks.

But then the sequelae — the medical word for longer-term consequences — set in. My ongoing symptoms are familiar to many of the so-called Covid “long-haulers”: in addition to the exhaustion and careening heartbeat, I have headaches, shortness of breath, tremulousness, and numb and tingling extremities. Sounds are too loud, light is too bright, nine hours is too little sleep at night. I am fortunate to have been spared some of the other symptoms that plague long-haulers, such as “brain fog,” memory problems and PTSD-like anxiety.

Like many long-haulers, I was young — 37 — and healthy when I got Covid-19. I was working full-time in private practice and teaching at an academic medical center. I was doing pro bono work, raising my daughter, exercising most days, going out to museums and shows, serving on multiple nonprofit boards, and getting ready to host 20 kindergartners for an at-home birthday party the week I got sick (we canceled it).

Post-Covid, I can still do some of these things, which is more than many long-haulers can say, but only because they are virtual and therefore sedentary: pandemic life allows for visiting museums and viewing the performing arts virtually and attending work and board meetings online. So I can do it all from a seated position. I read endlessly on the couch to my daughter, and we play pretend games with me in a supine pose, while my husband does the vertical parenting that I can no longer do. He cooks for the family, he does the bike rides with our daughter. He would replace me as the chaperone to swimming lessons and ballet class, but for the pandemic.

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