BALTIMORE (WMAR) — For some COVID-19 long haulers, the load is heavy. It’s road paved with persistent symptoms and no answers. One Anne Arundel County woman has been along for the ride the entire time.
“You’re in your head thinking why me? Why did this happen to me?,” said Melissa Hunt.
Melissa Hunt, 34, has been fighting to get better since the pandemic first hit. Before doctors even knew there would be long term effects.
“It was very, very isolating and very frustrating and it’s still kind of frustrating,” said Hunt.
She started feeling sick right around the time that the state went into lock down, back in March of 2020, and decided to get tested because she works with immunocompromised patients in the University of Maryland Medical Center. She and her husband tested positive on April 1. They were never hospitalized and thought they were in the clear, but as he recovered, her symptoms got worse.
“I kind of had a lot of chest pain, shortness of breath, fatigue,” said Hunt.
She tried to go back to work in May, but quickly relapsed and went out on disability. Her life had completely changed.
“I remember it was awful. It was fourth of July and I couldn’t walk my dog more than two blocks. Before this, I used to go to spin class. I would hike. I was very active. My job was very active so it was a big lifestyle change and I was like, ‘I can’t believe this is happening. This is crazy’,” said Hunt.
She sought out help from University of Maryland’s new Post-COVID Clinic and met Dr. Andrea Levine.
“I’m very indebted to her because she actually taught me a lot about PASC [long COVID],” said Dr. Levine.
Dr. Levine said many of their long COVID patients are like Hunt. They were never hospitalized.
“Plenty of patients who were never critically ill and never hospitalized in the first place, they often have the most bothersome and persistent symptoms,” said Dr. Levine.
She said the most common symptom is fatigue. She also sees a lot of anxiety and depression, brain fog and pulmonary symptoms.
“A lot of people coming in complaining of shortness of breath, exercise intolerance, cough,” said Dr. Levine.
She has seen almost 150 patients. The clinic’s waitlist is full and there’s lots of unknowns.
“We don’t know how long it will last. We don’t know exactly what symptoms you’re gonna have. The unpredictability of it is, I think, frightening. And we don’t have a magic bullet for it. We don’t have a perfect drug to give people to cure it. We can really just support them through it,” said Dr. Levine.
Research suggests long COVID becomes increasingly likely with age and is twice as common in women.
Dr. Levine said the easiest way to avoid prolonged symptoms is to not get COVID by wearing a mask and getting vaccinated.
A study out of the UK showed the vaccine seems to protect against long COVID. In the minority of people who had a breakthrough infection, the odds of developing symptoms lasting longer than four weeks were cut by 50 percent, compared to unvaccinated people.
Dr. Levine said recent data also shows that the vaccine helps people with long COVID recover.
Hunt did felt better after her 2 doses but her biggest hurdle is still fatigue.
“I would have to say maybe 40% better. I was like I don’t feel as awful every day,” said Hunt. “I can get 10-12 hours of sleep and still feel an all over body tired, not like a sleepy tired.”
She finally went back to work full time in May, a whole year after she tested positive. Especially as a healthcare professional, she said the hardest part is not having an end date for the pain.
“Why am I dealing with these things two years later whereas a lot of people who are my age, who are just as healthy as me, maybe not quite as healthy, they recovered?” said Hunt.
The NIH is launching a large nationwide study to research the long term effects. Funded by the American Rescue Plan, the studies aim to determine the cause, find answers to prevent the debilitating condition and help those suffering recover.
Hunt wants to help in any way she can.
“I just want to do what I can to help people not have to go through this as long as I did or figure out why it’s happening,” said Hunt.