ORANGE PARK, Fla. – Millions of Americans who had COVID-19 are still feeling the long-term effects. They’re labeled as “long-haulers.”
On the verge of death, George Reteguiz was alone in the intensive care unit, in a coma, with severe COVID-19.
“COVID has not been kind to our family, that’s for sure,” his daughter Kim Reteguiz said.
Kim Reteguiz, who was also infected, was losing hope as her family already lost several loved ones to the coronavirus.
“We’ve had a few family members die. We’ve had several family members it ended up on ventilators,” she said.
Her father, however, wasn’t ready to go. On his 73rd birthday, he came out of the coma to the joy of dozens of family and friends on a video call celebrating him.
“People got to understand the hard part is when you come out of the coma,” the Puerto Rican-born, Bronx-raised Navy veteran said as he sat in a wheelchair at Orange Park Medical Center’s Inpatient Rehabilitation Center.
A man who previously was fiercely independent is now having to learn how to do the simplest things, like using the bathroom, putting socks on and walking.
“My heart is at 10%,” he said. “I don’t feel it. I get a little tired and all that. Ask me that question again if you don’t mind.”
That’s brain fog. Survivors can get cloudy thoughts, headaches and memory loss.
George Reteguiz is what doctors call a COVID-19 long-hauler, meaning even after surviving the virus, he and his family have lingering symptoms.
And the lingering effects aren’t just felt by seniors.
“My family had COVID, and we were really beat up by it,” Kim Reteguiz said. “It was 15 days of a sickness that I’ve never experienced. Fifteen days. We’re still kind of suffering, shortness of breath. I had gotten used to my mask. Now I can barely breathe in my mask for too long. Still can’t taste things right. Still get really tired. And COVID brain is real, where you’re just flighty.”
And they’re not alone. Millions of Americans of all ages have effects that won’t go away.
“It could be inflammation of the heart, causing the muscles to get weak,” said Dr. Saumil Oza, the chief of cardiology at Ascension St. Vincent’s.
His cardiac team is studying the long-term consequences of even mild cases of the virus.
“We don’t know down the line if a 20-year-old or a 30-year-old develops COVID with minimal symptoms, if the damage completely goes away or if it might down the line 20 years later cause a higher incidence of coronary disease or high blood pressure,” he said.
He’s concerned about permanent scarring and damage to critical arteries to previously healthy people, including athletes. Results from cardiac MRI scans often show a condition called myocarditis, which weakens the muscle and causes abnormal heart rhythms.
“It’s really going to be research that we’re doing in five or 10 years on COVID patients. It’s going to tell us what kind of long-term issues we’re going to have on this virus,” Oza noted.
Possibly more disturbing: the effects on breathing, according to Dr. Daniel Wyzan, a pulmonologist with the Ascension St. Vincent’s Lung Institute.
“There are people that had mild disease to begin with, not hospitalized, not that sick, they can have persistent symptoms at last weeks or even months,” he explained. “And they’re very debilitating.”
Some cases may cause permanent lung damage that could require a transplant.
“It means you’re going be short of breath rest of your life, potentially coughing, your scans won’t clear, some people might need oxygen,” he added.
Both doctors agree that most people should recover, but the virus is too new to know for sure, so the best bet is to not catch the disease.
They both said it should also be a wake-up call to exercise and eat healthily.
“What I do tell my patients is because we don’t know, the only thing you can control is your lifestyle,” Wyzan said.
Despite it all, George Reteguiz and his family are still thankful and hoping for a full recovery.
“Don’t give up just cause you got it,” he said with gratitude. “I’m gonna give thanks to God, and I hope you put that on TV because I have faith. You got to have faith, friends and family. I love that.”
He wanted to thank everyone who helped him, from the doctors and nurses at the Mayo Clinic to the OPMC Inpatient Rehabilitation Center. He said they can’t get enough praise. And he wants to tell people to take this virus seriously. Before he got sick, he didn’t believe in it. He didn’t wear a mask. He believes it almost killed him.
Doctors say while many patients’ lingering effects should disappear with time, if they don’t go away, get checked out. It does take time, some people have chest tightness, fatigue and headaches. The body has to build itself back up. But if this hasn’t gone away for months, you need a medical expert. If you have trouble breathing or feel like you’re having a heart attack, don’t wait, get help right away.
Dr. Saman Soleymani with Avecina Medical also joined us on The Morning Show on Wednesday to explain how he’s treating his patients who are now labeled “long-haulers” and shared some advice on when you should be contacting your doctor about lingering symptoms if you’ve had COVID-19. Watch his interview below: