The Journal Gazette
Sunday, January 24, 2021 1:00 am


COVID-19 patients detail grueling, weeks-long recovery process

MATTHEW LEBLANC | The Journal Gazette

The virus wasn't done with her.

Melissa Rinehart, 50, tested positive for COVID-19 in mid-October after enduring what she thought was a sinus infection. The executive director of Wellspring Interfaith Social Services – a Fort Wayne charity that offers a food bank and programs for children and adults – later suffered “indescribable headaches” and lost her sense of taste.

That was just the start of an unwanted journey into the clutches of a treacherous disease that so far has infected nearly 10% of Indiana's roughly 6.7 million residents and killed 9,267 Hoosiers as of Friday.

“Even when I thought I was out of the woods, I had an emergency room visit several weeks after my symptoms (subsided),” Rinehart said in an interview last week.

That was because of shoulder and chest pain as well as fears of a blood clot. Overcoming those problems, Rinehart developed a new set of maladies including fatigue.

She returned to work at Wellspring's Broadway office, but said she would “fade just after lunch.”

Then came the “brain fog.” Rinehart, who said she loves writing – she first described her experiences in a piece on this page on Nov. 1 – discovered simply communicating was challenging.

“I would have word scrambles,” she said. “The words wouldn't come. I can think them, and I can write them, but they won't come out of my mouth.”

Things are back to normal now, but getting there was not easy for Rinehart and millions of others who have battled the ubiquitous coronavirus. More than 24 million COVID-19 infections have been confirmed in the U.S., and researchers estimate about 10% of coronavirus patients are “long haulers” – people left dealing with the disease's effects weeks or months after they should have recovered.

The phenomenon has stumped experts, and it's a reminder – as if one were needed – that COVID-19 remains a formidable foe not to be taken lightly. Even as the majority of those who contract the virus recover and vaccines are doled out to those at highest risk for the most harmful effects, guidance such as wearing masks and physical distancing should be followed.

“Anecdotally, there's no question that there are a considerable number of individuals who have a postviral syndrome that really, in many respects, can incapacitate them for weeks and weeks following so-called recovery and clearing of the virus,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said in July, according to an article posted to the website of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

The reason? No one knows.

“There seems to be no consistent reason for this to happen,” a University of California-Davis website that includes questions about long haulers says. “This condition can affect anyone – old and young, otherwise healthy people and those battling other conditions. It has been seen in those who were hospitalized with COVID-19 and patients with very mild symptoms.”

Steve McMichael also began his battle with COVID-19 in the fall and experienced an arduous road to recovery.

The 54-year-old New Haven mayor was in a staff meeting Oct. 5 when he began to experience pain and tightness in his chest.

“I immediately had the EMS and fire chief do an observation and went home to isolate until I could schedule a test,” McMichael said in an email. “In the months prior, I took my temperature several times per day, practiced social distancing as much as possible and wore a mask nearly 100% of the time while in public.”

An Oct. 8 test at a clinic on East Paulding Road revealed his COVID-19 diagnosis.

“I was extremely surprised,” he said. “That turned into concern when I thought about who I was in contact with. I have several family members who are immune compromised. Fortunately, members of my family tested negative and never showed any symptoms.”

McMichael describes the onset of his symptoms as mild, but they stuck around and worsened.

“Extreme fatigue,” chest pains and difficulty breathing filled a few days. He slept away nearly three full days. There was a three-day hospital stay in November.

“In the weeks after my diagnosis, I experienced several different mild issues,” McMichael said. “I would start the day out strong and then fatigue would set in. It took awhile to get my full strength back. I did experience some brain fog. There are times where I have trouble breathing, but that has grown more infrequent and has since ended.”

The fight “has been one of the greatest challenges I have faced,” the mayor says.

He encourages people “to take it seriously and put additional protocols in place to safeguard themselves and their families.”

Those who contracted the virus but are not long haulers echo comments from McMichael, who has recovered.

They also suffered serious illnesses that are nothing to laugh off.

Ron Turpin was 49 when he was diagnosed with COVID-19 in November. Now 50, the vice president for civic engagement for private equity firm Ambassador Enterprises said in an interview he had a sore throat and a headache. He thought it was a cold, but later tested positive.

“It was really the second week that kicked my butt,” said Turpin, who also is an East Allen County Schools board member.

He developed a “persistent hacking cough” and was exhausted for at least a week.

“If I walked 20 feet from the couch to the kitchen, I would just be totally exhausted,” Turpin said last week. “I was really sick, but I wasn't hospital sick. It's something you can't take for granted that nothing will happen if you got (COVID-19). This was day after day after day of really not even wanting to leave the couch.”

Matt Newbauer, 50, was diagnosed Monday, after he “didn't feel right the night before.”

“It came on instantly – chills, fatigue, body aches,” he said.

Now, the veteran Fort Wayne Police Department detective and president of the local Fraternal Order of Police is taking some homeopathic remedies given to him by a friend and hoping to beat the coronavirus.

It's not easy.

He's tired, and the body aches continue.

“I feel like I have the body of a 90-year-old right now,” Newbauer said.

But slowly, he feels like he is recovering. He hopes to leave isolation at home and return to work soon.

“Every day has been better,” he said. “I assure you, (COVID-19) is real.”

Matthew LeBlanc is an editorial writer for The Journal Gazette.

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