Survivors often have to live with the after-effects of COVID-19, experiencing symptoms months after a positive diagnosis. They say their bodies feel unfamiliar to them as they return to everyday life.

*Kabelo Mofokeng, a woman from the East Rand, said she suspected contracting the virus from one of her learners who tested positive after schools reopened in July last year.

She expressed her surprise at how quickly one is expected to bounce back.

“It amazes me that the government and our employers still expect us to have recovered from the virus after 14 days,” said Mofokeng.

“It took me about six weeks before I started feeling like my old self again. And still today, even more than a year later, I still feel dizzy some days, have bad headaches, chest pain and difficulty catching my breath. I still feel disconnected from my entire body,” the 31-year-old added.

Mofokeng was admitted to hospital a few weeks after testing positive due to kidney inflammation – a side-effect of COVID-19 as explained by her doctor.

The emotional trauma took hold of her resulting in mental exhaustion and nightmares, triggered by the rise in cases and deaths.

Long COVID: Long, bumpy road

Her rollercoaster ride didn’t end there.

Mofokeng tested positive for a second time in September last year and is haunted by plenty of uncertainty.

“Living with COVID-19 symptoms is scarier now because I can’t always be sure if it’s part of the long haul or am I showing symptoms associated with the new Delta variant?”

She said that on some days, she feels so weak and struggles to even get out of bed and go to work.

Once she’s in her classroom, she goes the extra mile in ensuring everyone’s safety.

“We sanitize like hell. I’m also very worried that long COVID-19 has affected my health in a greater way because I was vaccinated while presenting these symptoms. Today marks the seventh day since I started experiencing muscle pain, vomiting and a long-lasting fever,” said Mofokeng.

A stranger in her own body

Another survivor, Sinelizwi Ngxaketho, described how the after-effects of the virus ravaged her body, making it extremely challenging to carry out everyday tasks. She said she is unable to work long hours and needs to sit down due to painful and swollen feet.

“My body has become so unpredictable since I tested positive earlier this year. I have days of feeling listless, get painful headaches at work and still can’t go to the gym because I don’t know if my body can take it,” said Ngxaketho, who was bed-ridden for 10 days after testing positive.

As someone who works in administration, she is required to have energy throughout the day. But thanks to COVID-19, she struggles to concentrate and pay attention to detail almost three months later.

Ngxaketho also experienced ‘brain fog’, another lingering effect of the virus.

“The loss of memory has worsened since January. I struggle to recall events and can’t remember information. I am also so clumsy and my brain feels more confused than ever,” she added.

Like so many others, Ngxaketho struggles with anxiety amid the new Delta variant storm in South Africa. So much so, that she’s even afraid to pass on change or count money paying for her taxi ride.

“The other day I lashed out at a Taxify driver demanding that he wears his mask. I am so paranoid of contracting this new Delta variant because I don’t know if my body will be able to cope,” she feared.

Her doctor has advised her to elevate herself when she sleeps as well as try different sleeping positions to help her with her breathing difficulties.

Doctors delve into ‘Long COVID’

Long Covid or ‘Covid long-haulers’ generally describe those individuals with COVID-19 who experience symptoms for 28 days after diagnosis.

According to Dr Marc Mendelson, Professor of Infectious Diseases Head of Infectious Diseases & HIV Medicine at Groote Schuur Hospital, patients with long-COVID can experience multiple symptoms that involve the lungs and body. These may include, but are not limited to, fatigue, muscle pains, weakness and low-grade fever, a cough, shortness of breath, chest pain, headaches, cognitive blunting (‘brain fog’), pins and needles and rashes.

He explained just how extensive these symptoms can be, attacking the entire body and mind.

“Mental health conditions include mood swings, depression and thromboembolic disease. Some symptoms such as fatigue may be continuous, while others come and go,” said Mendelson, who went on to explain the mental aspect.

“The unprecedented levels of stress triggered by COVID-19, spanning fears about the future, anticipation anxiety, loss of jobs, fear, and the death of, loved ones from the virus, in addition to the psychological effects of lockdown, have adversely affected the mental health of many living through the last 10 months,” he added.

A study from the US Centre’s for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which interviewed 274 individuals with proven COVID-19 who had not been admitted to hospital, demonstrated that even in young adults, symptoms may be slow to resolve. It stated that at least 26% of interviewees, aged between 18 and 34, reported not having returned to their usual state of health within 14 to 21 days of their test, the figure rising to 47% in the 50 and over category. The greater the number of pre-existing chronic conditions, the greater the likelihood that symptom resolution would be delayed.

Light at the end of the tunnel

Mendelson said that developing long-COVID as a survivor is not guaranteed since “there may not be a single pathogenesis in light of the variable symptoms that may manifest and the interplay with the psychological impact of COVID-19 and the deconditioning that occurs during prolonged illness”.

The doctor went on to give hope to those fearing long-COVID: “It is important to provide reassurance that the majority of persons suffering from long-COVID will get better in time.” – Health-e News