At 35, Stephanie Stidham fits a typical profile of the patient seen at the Watson Clinic’s center for people whose COVID-19 symptoms linger for a long time. The average age is around 40 and there are more women than men, according to the doctor who oversees the clinic for “long-haul” patients.
“I’m freaking out to be honest,” said Stidham, a mother of three school-aged children. “You have no idea what [COVID-19] broke … or when it’s going to go away.”
The Post-Covid-19 Clinic at Watson Clinic has seen lots of demand. It doesn’t have any availability until June. Dr. Kathleen Haggerty, who specializes in internal medicine, has treated more than 80 patients since the clinic opened in September.
“The response has been overwhelming. We’ve seen people from St. Petersburg, Vero Beach and Miami,” she said.
Her patients are colloquially referred to as “long haulers,” due to their lingering symptoms of COVID-19 for months after testing negative for the virus.
The symptoms can include chest pain, shortness of breath, pinprick sensations all over the body, diarrhea, tingling and numbness, brain fog, sweating, depression, and anxiety. The most common is fatigue, according to Haggerty.
“This is really a very debilitating illness,” explained Kathleen Haggerty. “The sudden development of anxiety and depression that are really very severe is common and difficult to deal with.”
Despite the prevailing notion that older COVID-19 patients get sicker, the average age at the clinic is around 40.
“A lot of young people get afflicted by this, which is undoubtedly very surprising for them because they thought they’d be the ones to get over it just fine,” Haggerty said. “This is bothering people who are employed and have to get back to work.”
Stidham, a programmer analyst from Mulberry, said her COVID-19 symptoms never fully went away after she was diagnosed with the virus on Dec. 7. She still experiences shortness of breath, fatigue, joint pain, and headaches off and on.
“I’m worried there’s more lurking beneath the surface, a blood clot, an aneurysm, a weakened heart. It’s all extremely scary, unknown territory. It’s super stressful all the time and it doesn’t go away.”
When she first got the virus, Stidham thought it was the stomach flu, as she endured nausea, vomiting and exhaustion. Then, three days after her positive COVID-19 test result, the worst symptoms appeared.
“I started getting completely unreal migraines, like the most excruciating headache I’ve ever had in my life kind of pain. My chest felt super heavy and tight all the time, like I had something strapped to it, and I developed a dry, barking cough,” Stidham recalled.
She never had a fever. She took medicine for her migraines and cough and monitored her oxygen levels. With time, the symptoms became less severe, but she said they haven’t gone away. She still struggles to walk from the parking lot to her desk, an issue she never had before testing positive for COVID-19.
Haggerty believes time helps heal many of the symptoms. With treatment, she said, many of her patients have been discharged from the Post-COVID-19 Clinic.
“We have been seeing people get better from the complications of this problem … Over the long term, people have been improving,” Haggerty said.
There’s also talk from some COVID “long-haulers” that symptoms started to go away after getting vaccinated, although scientists say more research still needs to be done.
Stidham is hopeful about that news and plans to get the vaccine. She has heard of the post-COVID-19 clinic but fears taking off too much time from her job. She also doesn’t think she can afford the care.
“I was concerned about my insurance coverage there and fielding the copays. We’re a single-income household and I only get paid once a month. That stuff can add up,” Stidham said.
She’s seeing her primary care doctor for now and has been prescribed some steroids, medication for the headaches and an inhaler for the shortness of breath.
Haggerty admits treating the lingering symptoms left behind by COVID-19 can get expensive and time consuming. Depending on their symptoms, patients may receive lab tests, radiology evaluations, pulmonary function tests, and additional tests designed to diagnose issues related to depression, cognitive ability, physical maladies, nutritional deficiencies, and neurological disorders.
“This is not a problem that we’re really taking into account when politicians say open up all of the bars and let’s go at spring break. They’re thinking about the economy but what if those 27-year-olds get post-COVID and can’t go back to work and are out of work for months because of debilitating symptoms?” Haggerty asked.
“This is a terrible problem and it’s just not one that is being figured into the amount of suffering or opening-up decisions.”
Stidham is grateful her employer has made some accommodations for her and allowed her to work from home more often. She hopes other employers will do the same for people in her shoes.
“Putting workplace protections in is probably the first step. This is a debilitating and unknown condition and should be treated as such. Respecting disability rights in general would go a long way, to be honest,” Stidham said.
She called the entire experience worrisome and tiring and wished people would be more understanding. “People can’t see that you’re sick and largely ignore it or think you’re exaggerating,” Stidham explained.
There are various online resources for people suffering from lingering symptoms of COVID-19. Survivor Corps is a website that connects COVID-19 survivors and compiles research and news related to the virus. There are also Facebook groups dedicated to survivors, such as the Florida Covid-19 Long Haulers group, and many others.
To schedule an appointment with Dr. Haggerty, call 863-680-7190.