Symptoms linger for months, change lives for Waco patients with long COVID-19 | Local News

Waco radio personality Rich Richardson remembers Sept. 11, 2021, as the day COVID-19 changed his world, and he does not remember anything from a 26-day coma that followed.

Six months later, and three months into physical therapy meant to get his arms and legs back to their normal function, COVID-19 continues to shadow his world.

The recent national decline in COVID-19 cases following the omicron surge may have much of the country looking at the disease in a rearview mirror, but for many, the effects of COVID-19 are ever at hand.

For some like Richardson, it is the ongoing recovery from body damage caused by the coronavirus. For others suffering from what is called long COVID-19, it is living for months with symptoms that, though largely not life-threatening on their own, are serious enough to threaten livelihoods and disrupt their lives.

An American Medical Association post on long COVID-19 says an estimated 10% to 30% of COVID-19 patients may suffer health issues from it four months or more later, even if the initial case was mild. With nearly 70,000 documented COVID-19 cases in McLennan County over the last two years, that could mean lingering problems for thousands of county residents.

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More weeks of COVID-19 recovery ahead do not discourage Richardson, the “Big Rich” whose voice is known to local sports fans listening to KWBT-FM (94.5) for the CBS Sports Radio Central Texas morning show or play-by-play coverage of La Vega High School football games. He has been through months of recovery so far and is grateful for what progress he has made, choking up when he talks about the work his wife, Mary, and his KWBT colleagues have done to help him through.

“There’s no doubt in my mind I was very fortunate,” he said.

Richardson, 50, was off his feet recovering from cellulitis when COVID-19 hit him in mid-September, though his symptoms at the time felt like a bad cold. His legs collapsed when he tried to stand up from his bed on Sept. 11, prompting a call for an ambulance and trip to the emergency room.

“The last thing I remember was the ambulance backing out of the driveway, and 26 days later I woke up,” he said.

On admission to the hospital, he tested positive for COVID-19, prompting Mary and her mother to get tested. Both had COVID-19, too, which kept them from visiting Richardson in the early weeks of his hospitalization. Mary, an office manager for an insurance broker, had her own tough bout with the virus for two weeks, with more weeks of brain fog and a lasting cough more than a month. Upon recovering, she juggled work, caring for parents and visiting her husband almost daily.

“It’s just very stressful, trying to maintain a semblance of daily life,” she said.

When he awoke from his coma, Richardson had no voice because of the extended intubation in the hospital and had little feeling below his neck. Gradually and with physical rehabilitation, much of his physical function returned.

“My voice, vision, hearing and memory were not affected. On the flip side, my arms and legs were affected,” he said.

By late December, he had improved enough to move from Baylor Scott & White Hillcrest Medical Center to rehab at Waco Healthcare and Rehabilitation Center. His arm function is still a little impaired and relearning to walk has been complicated by the loss of feeling in his feet. Nerve regeneration has been slow, but he has progressed enough to resume some of his radio station duties. To cover the cost of ongoing rehabilitation after Richardson’s insurance coverage of skilled nursing care ran out, Open Door Church of God in Christ pastor Carlton Stimpson has created a GoFundMe for help from the community.

“People say I’m way ahead of schedule,” Richardson said. “My goal is to be home by the end of March. My anniversary is March 28, and I’d like to be home by then.”

Chris Hoke, 46, felt the brutal punch of COVID-19 around New Year’s Eve, but rather than coldlike symptoms, his were more like blows to the skull.

“It was the worst headache I’ve ever had in my life,” Hoke said.

Body aches came next and continued for days, during which time his wife, Trish, came down with COVID-19, too. His case did not send him to the emergency room, but he could not shake it, either.

Ten days later, the sports fan could not make it past headaches and extreme fatigue watching the first half of the Alabama-Georgia college football national championship on a Monday night.

“I didn’t know who won that game until Wednesday,” he said.

Stomach upsets and a tight throat joined headaches and body aches.

“It was the worst two weeks of my life,” said Hoke, who runs his social media marketing business Social Media Cowboys from his home.

As initial symptoms slowly subsided, a new one took their place: insomnia, with sleepless nights that no over-the-counter medicine seemed to affect. Nearly three months after his COVID-19 case, Hoke still has not turned the corner on insomnia, though he now is sleeping a few hours a night.

“I honestly don’t know what to do. The crazy thing is when I wake up, I’m awake,” he said. “Trial and error is all I know how to do now. If I wasn’t self-employed, I’d be hurting bad.”

Long COVID-19 sufferers report more than insomnia, fatigue, brain fog and loss of muscular function, however, and that is part of the problem facing both patient and physician. A Yale Medicine website on the subject lists 22 possible symptoms, including shortness of breath, memory loss, low-grade fever, body aches, cough, loss of appetite, diarrhea, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression.

Dr. Ben Wilson, assistant chief medical officer for Waco Family Medicine, said the challenge for a doctor is teasing out which symptoms stem from COVID-19 and which indicate a separate or underlying condition that also need addressing.

“It’s such a slippery diagnosis to make because there’s considerable overlap with other conditions,” Wilson said. “It’s challenging for clinicians to know how to address it.”

What causes it is another puzzle. Researchers speculate it could be overreaction from a sensitive immune system, nerve or other organ damage from the initial infection, coronavirus lingering in organs, or even activation of dormant Epstein-Barr virus, which may cause chronic fatigue syndrome.

Waco general practitioner Dr. Scott Blattman estimated he has several dozen patients with symptoms that might indicate something like long COVID-19. They tend to have physical symptoms like fatigue, cough or shortness of breath, or mental symptoms like anxiety, brain fog or PTSD. Sometimes the symptoms indicate underlying problems with lungs, the heart or depression that COVID-19 amplified, and sometimes the symptoms are attributable to allergies, respiratory conditions, stress and anxiety, he said.

While long COVID-19 symptoms may not seem life-threatening, they can have serious consequences, Blattman said. Driving while exhausted or confused could result in an accident that injures or kills someone, while a patient without a sense of smell might miss the warning smells of a fire or gas leak.

Both Blattman and Wilson said anyone with possible long COVID-19 symptoms should see their primary care physician to rule out other conditions or find treatments and medicine to ease the symptoms.

Like so much that concerns COVID-19, there is little predictability in who might be more likely to develop long COVID-19. People with serious COVID-19 cases requiring hospitalization have developed it, but so have those with mild cases or even asymptomatic cases.

And while doctors and hospitals now have some antiviral medicines and recommended therapies for COVID-19, there is nothing yet that specifically addresses long COVID-19.

“There’s no definite treatment. You have to let time run its course,” Wilson said.

At this point, physicians advise the best way to avoid long COVID-19 is to avoid a serious case of COVID-19, which means vaccine boosters, mask use, social distancing and hand washing.

The lack of known treatments is an enormous frustration for the people who have fought the aftermath of COVID-19 for months. Sarah Collins, a 1998 Waco High School and 2001 McLennan Community College graduate, contracted COVID-19 in March 2020 in Portland, Oregon, where, until recently, she had lived for the last 15 years.

Debilitating fatigue, brain fog and a low-grade fever for six months led her to doctors unable to pinpoint a cause or cure as well as others who let her know she was not alone. In the online community of the Body Politic COVID-19 Support Group, she found thousands of others caught in a no man’s land of life-changing symptoms with no medical solutions.

“We have felt doctors largely ignored in this, with thought that we were making this up. We weren’t able to come home with a good solution,” Collins said by phone from North Carolina where she now lives. “It’s a massive problem for thousands of us.”

Long COVID-19 cost her the Portland piano studio that was her livelihood and forced her to move near her parents in North Carolina. Thanks to a breaking partially offset by friends’ fundraising, vaccinations and boosters, and treatment for chronic fatigue disorder, Collins is now contemplating a return to Portland and her work.

“I hope it’s over, but I’m not convinced it is,” she said.