First in a four-part series looking at how people in the community are rebuilding a year after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic on March 11, 2020.
Nearly a year after contracting COVID-19, Surrey’s Atish Ram says he’s looking at his recovery from three sides.
Ram was diagnosed with COVID-19 in late March 2020 when he believes he caught it while grocery shopping, before masks, face shields, distancing and plexiglass barriers were commonplace.
He ended up spending two months in hospital, and when he was able to finally return home, he continued to use medical oxygen for six months.
When it comes to his year-long journey, Ram said there are physical, mental and spiritual aspects to his recovery.
For the physical, Ram said “you can’t really do the things that you want to do, and the way you can help yourself do that is basically get up, get moving.”
After “weaning” himself off the medical oxygen, he said he would walk around the house to build up his strength. Then he moved on to a walk to the mailbox with his daughter.
“I walked literally three houses down and I couldn’t walk anymore. I had to stop. It was just slow progress,” said Ram, adding that he’s “much better” about three months since he stopped using the oxygen.
But he still gets shortness of breath.
“My lung capacity is not the same as before… I know that my lung is not the same anymore. It’s not full capacity.”
After meeting with a respirologist, Ram now knows his lung capacity is 63 per cent of what it used to be.
This is what people have dubbed “long COVID.”
On Facebook, Ram said he’s among a 12,000-strong group of people dealing with lingering symptoms, despite being deemed recovered from the virus.
His lingering symptoms include a reduced sense of smell and taste. A shooting pain down the right side of his body from what the doctor told him was “from coughing so much in hospital that (he) pulled out (his) two discs in the back.”
Through the Facebook group, Ram found out about post-COVID-19 recovery clinics, one of which is at Jim Pattison Outpatient Care and Surgery Centre in Surrey.
Ram said he got a referral to the clinic through his doctor, and was then assessed by an “amazing doctor who took two hours with me and really listened to me as to what was going on with my body and what I was going through.”
This was in February, but from what he’s heard, Ram said not many people seem to be aware of these clinics.
“That’s a year after I got COVID, and 10 months after I got out of the hospital, I finally got some help. And I had to go find it.”
Dr. Sharry Kahlon, medical director for the Surrey post-COVID recovery clinic, said one of the things people in the medical field realized throughout this pandemic is that “we are watching an illness unfold in real-time.”
“And as we’re doing that, we’re trying to put together the resources to help patients manage both the acute unwellness or acute illness they have,” she said, “as well follow them over time because we are seeing patients continue to suffer even after the initial diagnosis is done.”
One of the most common post-COVID symptoms Kahlon is seeing in a “significant number of patients” is fatigue that’s affecting their ability to function day-to-day. It’s called post-exertional malaise.
“When they do feel well enough to try and do regular activity — for example if they were to try and exercise or return to work — they are quite fatigued or debilitated for a few days after that sort of stress or exertion in their life,” explained Kahlon, adding she’s also seen it in patients who experienced milder cases of COVID-19.
“Those type of symptoms aren’t physical, you don’t see them. So they’re feeling a lot of stigma or feeling quite isolated that no one is recognizing those symptoms.”
The other piece that’s “really come to light,” she said, is the mental health aspect.
Kahlon said people are struggling with anxiety, depression, negative feelings around their illness and “sometimes almost a PTSD-like phenomenon.”
When it comes to his recovery mentally, Ram said he doesn’t know how to deal with that yet.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do with this brain fog. I try to say something and my thoughts go blank. That’s something I’m worried about. I was very sharp thinking.”
He’s since been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. “When I went into the hospital just a month ago to get my respiratory test, I started having a panic attack,” he said.
“The other thing is the psychological part of it because you’ve been through so much trauma. With me, and fighting for my life and not knowing if I’m going to be alive the next day.”
But one of the many hurdles he’s managed to jump is returning to the grocery store. “I’m still staying safe. I’m wearing two masks. I’m wearing gloves everywhere I go. I don’t really go anywhere, maybe grocery shopping, that’s it,” he said. “I’m not afraid to go to the grocery store. I’m not going to have this virus control me.”
The final piece to Ram’s recovery is his spirituality.
“I know I’m going to get through this because what I had gone through in the hospital, what I experienced in the hospital, how I came out of it, I don’t have any answers to that other than my faith in God.
“If I have that faith, I believe I can conquer the rest of this stuff. At least two out of three ain’t bad, right?”
Part two in this series will look at how students and teachers are adapting to face-to-face, remote and blended learning, and what the future could look like for schools.