Three months after testing positive for COVID-19, Natalie Nowell is free of the virus but still plagued by lingering physical issues.
Though the severity of her symptoms varies from day to day, the mother of three young boys is constantly fatigued, suffers from headaches, insomnia, swelling, tingling in her hands and face, shortness of breath and fogginess. She sometimes struggles to articulate when speaking or has difficulty reading aloud to her kids, and she experiences severe pain in the base of her head and neck, for which she is now in physical therapy.
“What COVID has done to my body is showing up like I have a concussion,” she said.
Like thousands of Memphians and millions of people around the world, Nowell — despite never needing to be hospitalized due to the virus — is navigating a new normal after recovering from COVID-19 and facing an uncertain future, which could be impacted by the virus for months or years to come. The virus is so new, the long-term ramifications on the health of people who had it remains unclear.
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A June report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 35% of people who tested positive for the virus in an outpatient setting had not returned to their normal level of health two to three weeks later. A review in the Journal of the American Medical Association of several studies of people who had recovered from COVID-19 found large numbers of middle-aged patients suffered serious cardiac problems after their recovery, even if they were asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic.
For the 34-year-old Cordova resident who tested positive for COVID-19 in early May, the past three months have been physically and emotionally draining.
Nowell first started experiencing symptoms April 23. She went to the emergency room and was tested for COVID-19, but tested negative. Doctors also ordered blood work and a chest X-ray, but no issue was found, so she went home. Within 24 hours, her symptoms had worsened dramatically.
“I was feeling like I was going to have a panic attack, (that) was really how it started,” she said. “I felt like my chest was heavy, I was short of breath, I just felt off.”
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The next day, she had a fever, a cough and a headache, and her shortness of breath had worsened. Due to her negative test, she didn’t think she had COVID-19, but she knew her illness was serious. She drank lots of fluids, had chicken noodle soup, took vitamins and Tylenol, and rested as much as she could. But things kept getting worse.
“By that night, I was having hallucinations in the middle of the night. I would wake up in a panic,” Nowell said. “I’d wake up not being able to breathe.”
She called her general practitioner’s office and got a telehealth appointment with another doctor at the practice. After she described her symptoms, he told her she might have a urinary tract infection or a sinus infection and prescribed some over-the-counter medications Nowell was already taking. She said she felt the doctor didn’t listen to her or take her seriously and she was worried that she wouldn’t get any medical help for her worsening symptoms.
“I was thinking, ‘I am scared, I don’t want to go to sleep again,’ ” she said. “I had moments where I didn’t know if I’d wake up.”
She then got an appointment with Dr. Nora Maldonado, a primary care physician with Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare, who diagnosed Nowell with bronchitis, gave her a prescription for an inhaler and cough medication that also helped her sleep, and told her to get re-tested for COVID-19.
That second test came back positive, which brought on mixed feelings.
“One, part of me was like, ‘Finally, I knew this had to be it.’ It was a relief,” Nowell said. “And then two, it was fear. I know I legitimately have the pandemic. The thing that the world is shutting down for is in my house.”
More than three months after that positive test result, Nowell no longer has COVID-19 but is still experiencing serious physical symptoms. Maldonado said she is seeing more and more patients like Nowell who are experiencing respiratory difficulty, fatigue and sometimes neurological issues post COVID-19.
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“It just takes time for them to recover, a lot more time than you would expect from another illness,” she said. “It can take them time to get back to that baseline, and some of these were people who were healthy, who were running multiple miles every day.”
Maldonado said it’s too soon to know if these ailments will be permanent or if they’ll eventually fade away. The lingering impacts of the virus vary person to person, she said, like the symptoms during the infection period. While the long recovery period could simply be something unique to the virus, it could also be because medical professionals are still learning about the virus and what the best ways to treat it are.
On top of the physical impacts of the virus, there are the financial implications of long-term health care needs and the emotional toll of COVID-19. Nowell said the virus is a part of her family’s daily life. When she was sick, she was worried about her family constantly and couldn’t kiss her sons or see her father, who has cancer.
“I’m still healing through the emotional trauma of how scary it was, waking up in the middle of the night and not being able to breathe, watching my family watch me go through this,” she said.
Throughout her illness and her recovery, Nowell repeated the same Bible verse to herself over and over again, 2 Timothy 1:7: “For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.”
She constantly reminded herself not to give in to fear and to think with a sound mind. She said she hopes others who haven’t been directly impacted by the virus or who believe it is overblown stop to think about how they can work with their community to address the pandemic.
“We need to think beyond ourselves and consider our fellow man and think about how we can love our neighbor,” she said. “I’m one of the lucky ones who made it out alive even if I do have long-term effects. There are lots of people who did not make it out and who have family members who did not make it out.”
Corinne Kennedy is a reporter for The Commercial Appeal. She can be reached via email at [email protected] or on Twitter @CorinneSKennedy