My grown daughter, Michaela, was diagnosed with COVID in November 2021, which I wrote about here. COVID is a wily foe, and while we all hoped that she would recover as her brother, Morgan, did (which I wrote about here) – her path was much more harrowing.
After recovering from the acute stage of the illness, she returned to her remote work – business and life coaching of several clients over Zoom – yet she noticed that her eyes had difficulty looking at a computer screen. She chalked it up to being tired, and moved forward.
She also got back to Salsa and Bachata dancing. However, a few hours of dancing wore her out for a week! This was not her usual level of fatigue. She was accustomed to dancing for hours several times a week, plus working, hiking, and numerous other activities without ever feeling tired.
Food was also still an issue. She kept noticing that her stomach was still not tolerating foods very well, and everything still had to be cooked. She limited her variety of foods, no longer ate any fruit or vegetable raw, but still had acid reflux frequently.
After one family gathering for Morgan’s birthday, she got what she thought was food poisoning. Yet, no one else at the party got sick, and she realized that her stomach was worse off than she thought. She wondered if cooking a spaghetti squash in her brother’s oven ended up exposing her to juices of other foods. That small amount of cross-contact caused a firestorm in her gut, which meant that her stomach really hadn’t improved after the COVID virus.
Getting together with friends, she would feel fine before she left her place only to arrive at a designated location feeling exhausted. Once there, she realized that she kept asking the same question again and again. What was wrong with her brain? Why couldn’t she track conversations like she previously could? She loved being with people, yet now the noise and the interaction felt overwhelming.
Then came the hot/cold temperatures of various body parts. Her feet would be cold, and her hands hot. She’d never experienced this before. She was using Chinese herbs on various acupressure points trying to calm down her entire system, and the results weren’t what she wanted. It seemed like each day she was battling with weird symptoms that she’d never experienced before with MCAS. The herbs and creams previously calmed down any mast cell degranulation, but they couldn’t touch the symptoms she was now experiencing.
In mid-February 2022, she went outside for a walk. It was a cold evening, but nothing that she hadn’t experienced before, hiking in Colorado. She went on a walk near her apartment, and suddenly realized that her body needed to get home right away. She felt panicked at the thought of being outside. After arriving at home, she was feeling really anxious and felt like it was extremely difficult to breathe. She called me almost unable to get the words out. She told me her heart was racing, and she didn’t know what she was feeling. The main thing she did say was, “Don’t take me to the ER.” With her last experience of having 2 grand mal seizures in the ER after an IV push of Benadryl that was too quick, she now has what we have learned to call Medical PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder).
I chalked up her current situation to another MCAS storm. I suggested she take 2 Benadryl, and I stayed on the phone with her until Morgan got to her apartment. He took one look at her and said, “She’s having a panic attack. I’ll stay with her overnight.” He ended up staying that night and through the next day, and she still wasn’t doing well emotionally by early evening. The strange physical symptoms came and went, but she was so disoriented with what I’ll call brain fog, it was difficult to have a conversation with her.
Looking back now, I wish we would have taken her to the ER. She was so adamant about not having an IV put into her, that I didn’t want to create any more stress on her body. We didn’t realize until a few weeks later that she wasn’t having just an MCAS storm. Hours of Google searching helped us determine she was also having post-COVID syndrome, or long-haul COVID, or whatever term you want to call the myriad of symptoms that people have after having COVID.
Her body seemed to have gone over a threshold with the panic attack. She began to experience numerous symptoms that came and went daily: heart palpitations occurring dozens of time an hour, and especially when eating; blood pooling in one limb or one side of the body but especially in her torso; an inability to lie down without feeling she couldn’t breathe making sleep difficult if not impossible; hot and cold extremities; a buzzing sensation throughout her body; brain fog so severe that it was impacting her ability to communicate with friends or family; nausea especially when looking at any type of computer or phone screen; vestibular issues such as dizziness which made it impossible for her to drive a car; burning organs; burning skin; an inability to take any medications because of side effects like extreme anxiety; panic attacks that lasted hours; depression to the point of producing suicidal thoughts; gastrointestinal issues where she could tolerate eating very few foods; hot flashes and flushing; hives that appeared out of nowhere; and her menstrual cycle lasted the entire month. Basically, she couldn’t eat, couldn’t work at the computer, and couldn’t drive.
Working became much more difficult. She got helped from the Colorado Center for the Blind to have Siri programmed on her phone and computer to take directions from her so she wouldn’t have to look at the screen. She did her coaching through the phone instead of Zoom, but it was very difficult to keep notes and keep her brain functioning.
She tried to get in to see her Primary Care Physician (PCP) with her new insurance. Since she was a new patient, he was unable to set an appointment with her for 6 weeks! In the meantime, she got in to see a new allergist with her new insurance network. He listened to her and said that all of her symptoms were caused by anxiety, and if she got that handled, she’d be fine! You can imagine how awful that made her feel.
She saw an acupuncturist who overamped her system, and ended up creating more issues than she was helping. After just a few treatments, she could no longer tolerate the Chinese herbs and creams that she had been using, and she lost one of the 3 foods she was eating. The acupuncturist didn’t understand how to help Michaela in a gentle or any meaningful way. It was so frustrating trying to find someone to help her manage all of these symptoms she was experiencing!
I looked up post-COVID clinics located in Colorado at a website called Survivorcorps.com. This is a group of long-haulers providing resources and supporting research about post-COVID issues. I found that UC Health had a clinic, however when Michaela called them, they said they only took patients who had been in intensive care in the hospital. National Jewish Health also has a clinic; however, they wouldn’t take her insurance, and said that the initial appointment would be $650 and then blood tests and any other test ordered would be paid out of pocket. That wasn’t doable! The post-COVID clinic in Boulder that was listed didn’t take any insurance. Everything was private pay.
Michaela went to the last clinic listed in the Denver area in Westminster. It was a 45-minute Lyft ride from her apartment. She had a one-hour intake appointment with a physical therapist, who pronounced her 98% disabled because of her inability to eat, work or drive. Michaela said she wasn’t there to be declared disabled. She was there to get help and wanted some exercises or something to help all of her symptoms! The PT said Michaela would have to come back the next week since it was time for her lunch break. Frustration was mounting at this point. There were a lot of tears at this point, on my part and for Michaela. These so-called post-COVID clinics weren’t there to really help patients!
It was so difficult for Michaela to garner the energy to go see these doctors, then pay for the transportation or have a friend drive her, only to be dismissed without any real help. She lives alone, and her friends had trouble understanding that she wasn’t well, especially because she wasn’t able to adequately communicate with them what she was experiencing. People had their own lives, and weren’t always available to drive her places, help her do laundry or get food.
My husband and I live an hour south of Denver. We were talking with Michaela several times a day, and sometimes having a call with her in virtual silence to just be a voice at the end of the line when she was having panic attacks that literally lasted all day. We were helping her get food delivered (you have to look at a computer screen to order food!) or bringing food to her. Morgan was also helping with food deliveries and other emotional support.
These were harrowing days, filled with trying to find some medical professional to help her, while also trying to keep up with our own schedules. One Sunday when my husband got back home from visiting Michaela in Denver, he asked me to take him to the ER since he was experiencing chest pains. He ended up in surgery the next day for cardiac catheterization and received 2 heart stents. Thankfully, he recovered fully but the stress was getting to all of us!
Michaela was seeing a Network Chiropractor who was helping with her symptoms and then he overamped her system and she experienced back pain and anxiety. She stopped for a few weeks before going back to see him and to ask for very gentle entrainments. I picked her up weekly for this doctor appointment since it became the only modality that was helping her to feel connected with her body. And he was the only provider who was listening to her, and honoring what she was experiencing. He was honest about what he could help with because he didn’t understand long-COVID, but he did understand integrating energy in the body and he would work with her on that.
There are a few concierge doctors taking on long-COVID patients that we found across the US; however, new patient appointments were months or even a year or more out into the future. And everything was private pay, starting with $3000 for an initial appointment. That wasn’t going to help Michaela navigate her symptoms and her life today.
This is now the beginning of April – about 6 weeks since February’s major panic attack. She finally got in to see her PCP who diagnosed her with long-haul COVID, and ordered up numerous blood tests which all came back normal. This was not a surprising development, as we had been researching online for weeks at that point, and heard that normal blood tests were common. What was surprising was that the PCP told Michaela that she wasn’t his “kind of patient” since he was a family practice. She had chosen him because he was near her apartment which made it easier to get to him since she wasn’t driving.
I have never been so disappointed in the American healthcare system than I was at this point. It is absolutely appalling and one can feel so powerless with the never-ending rules, personalities, and unmet expectations one has to navigate, only to be let down in the end. What is a patient supposed to do when every avenue within western medicine closes them off?
Sadly, we have come to learn that Michaela’s story is very common in the long-haul COVID world. Many of the blood tests that western medicine doctors order aren’t the tests that will show what COVID has done to the immune system, vascular system or brain. And for anyone who has a chronic illness, western medicine is sadly lacking in physician appointment time to truly delve into a patient’s experience and history. Doctors are trained to look at the data from blood work or other tests and then prescribe a pill.
Long COVID doesn’t provide data in the western model, so doctors succumb to the easiest way to get the patient out of their office in the 15 minutes of allotted appointment time – tell them it’s all in their head: “Get your anxiety under control” or dismiss the patient outright: “You’re not my kind of patient.” In other words, the doctor is saying, “I don’t know what to do with you, so this must be your fault and not any lack of training or compassion on my part.”
This frustrating situation gets better because of Michaela’s tenacity and resolution to heal herself. Come back for the next blog post about her extraordinary journey on the path to healing!