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Memory loss, debilitating fatigue and more: Oklahomans share their experiences with long COVID symptoms

Even though cases are down, thousands of Oklahomans are still dealing with COVID symptoms. As many as one in three who are infected with the virus will continue to have symptoms for weeks — or even months — after recovery.

StateImpact talked with more than a dozen Oklahomans about their experiences with long-term COVID symptoms. What did those symptoms look like? To be honest, the experiences were all over the map, but there were a few things that came up time and again: lung issues, heart issues, brain fog — and frustration.

  • Editor's note: In the interest of privacy, we are not using names of those affected with long-term symptoms.

Lung Issues

SPEAKER 1: "I know that it's just clean the house and take the trash out and put gas in my car and take a shower. But it was really, really hard, and I did not know how to explain that to anybody. It was like, I just couldn't get enough oxygen in my body to move myself to do those things."

SPEAKER 2: "It was like the end of November 2020, so I have had I've had lung issues after that — ever since then, it's crazy. I get really winded easily, and I was never before because I used to run a lot and do a lot of active stuff. But ever since then, I just don't. My lungs feel tight, and I don't know. My lungs always just feel whack."

SPEAKER 3: "There were certain positions that I could and couldn't sleep in. I couldn't breathe. And I still, to this day, cannot sleep on my back. I will wake up if I turn on my back in my sleep."

Heart Issues

Long COVID can also impair the heart. Then-State Epidemiologist Jared Taylor told StateImpact in the fall of 2020 that cardiac damage from the coronavirus would be likely. Viruses use specific doorways to enter our cells, and the virus causing COVID-19 uses a doorway that is tied to the circulatory system.

SPEAKER 1: "I'm 33, and I've never had high blood pressure. I've never had heart issues. And three weeks ago, I was admitted to the emergency room as a severe case with blood pressure of 211 over 108."

Brain Fog

Brain fog is a pretty vague term, but it means their minds and memories were hazy. Some for a few weeks, some for the better part of a year.

SPEAKER 1: "I just — I wasn't very, very productive for at least three months before I felt myself beginning to get back to kind of my normal pace of like, you know, concentration memory. I've had concussions, and it felt like I had probably the worst concussion in my life, you know, so — and it just didn't go away."

SPEAKER 2: "It gets just so frustrating to the point where you kind of are like shouting at yourself, why can't I remember where I put anything anymore?"

Frustration

Getting help isn’t easy.

SPEAKER 1: "The only doctor that I have that gives any credibility to long COVID is my cardiologist, and she's very well versed on long COVID, but that's the only one."

Dr. Dale Bratzler, OU Health’s chief COVID officer, said part of the problem is that the virus, is one, new to the world, and two, doesn’t always leave clear evidence behind. Unfamiliar doctors might not know what to look for.

"So some doctors and others will marginalize them and basically try to get an anxiety or psychiatric diagnosis, rather than recognizing that they may very well be having some of these autoimmune phenomena or the things that have been associated with COVID-19," said Bratzler.

Some of the causes are obvious, like shrinkage in the area of the brain responsible for sense and smell. Others are not so obvious. For example, as Bratzler noted, COVID seems to trigger autoimmune disorders in some of the people it infects. That can cause seemingly random issues like joint pain.

He echoed that lung and heart issues, brain fog and fatigue — those are the most common in the long-COVID patients he’s seen.

"What the good news is that most of the people that I see that have symptoms, that they are transient in most people," Bratzler said.

More good news: cases are down significantly.

Braztler — and the Oklahomans I talked with who are weathering long COVID — say that those assessing their own threat level should consider these long-term symptoms.

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Catherine Sweeney reports for StateImpact Oklahoma, focusing on health.