COVID A Year On: NHS doctor's epic battle with long COVID
- Credit: Courtesy of Kate Steiner
A medical consultant who has been battling long COVID since April last year says she sometimes wonders if she will "ever get back to normal".
In June, this paper reported how Kate Steiner, a consultant in radiology at Stevenage's Lister Hospital, was suffering from long COVID after testing positive in April. This immense battle has lasted many months and, although now considered recovered, ongoing fatigue has forced Kate to reduce her work commitments, and she has had to change her diet, take medication and cut out alcohol as a result of having COVID-19.
Kate's severe illness began when she woke one morning with a high temperature and dry cough. Overwhelming fatigue followed, leaving her unable to get out of bed, and she began experiencing other symptoms, including severe back pain, hallucinations, breathlessness, palpitations, weight loss and a loss of sensation to both feet.
In the second week of Kate's illness, both her husband and 13-year-old son tested positive for COVID, but made a good recovery. For Kate, however, her recovery has been slow and hampered by regular relapses. At her sickest, isolated from her family, she wondered if she'd ever hug or kiss them again.
Kate, a keen horse rider who was previously fit and well, explained: "The long COVID I experienced was the type with recurrent relapses, where some of the symptoms returned on a regular basis, usually just after recovering from the last relapse, and fatigue was pretty much a constant feature. I also continued to have an intermittent low grade temperature, which only settled completely after about five months. I never re-tested positive during this time.
"Physically I have recovered, but I still have to be mindful of screen fatigue. I take supplements, antihistamines and anti-inflammatories, which I did not take pre-COVID. I have almost completely cut out caffeine, I have to avoid certain foods - in particular those high in histamine - and have no alcohol.
"I have found it very upsetting having to turn down work, such as speaking at events, which I really enjoy and would normally be able to do, but I am picking this back up gradually.
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"My family, in particular my husband, have been my rock. Although I am much better now, there have been times when I have questioned whether I will ever get back to normal.
"Like many long haulers, my main fears were about how bad the next relapse would be, about not recovering, and about not being able to work in the long-term and the implications that would have for my family."
Kate said her GP was very helpful in advising about symptom control, and she also enlisted the help of a Chinese herbal medicine and acupuncture practitioner, which she says was beneficial.
During Kate's recovery, long COVID became a formal diagnosis and she was referred to a long COVID clinic in September, when she was introduced to a team that provided much-needed support.
Kate said: "I cannot thank the team enough, they made a huge difference to my recovery. They taught me how to pace my activity. This meant I kept a diary of my activity every day, and very gradually increased what I was doing as I felt better. It is very difficult to hold back when you are used to pushing yourself both mentally and physically, but doing this was when I started to see really positive results.
"They also supported me in returning to a challenging working environment, in particular during the second wave of infections."
Kate's return to work was phased, starting with a couple of sessions a week and gradually building to full-time, although she is still not back on-call.
Of the current situation and the future, Kate said: "I find it upsetting when I see restrictions being ignored and infection control measures not followed, because it makes me feel like those people don't care about others. I feel the same way when posts are shared on social media which attempt to trivialise COVID infection.
"Hopefully, as the vaccine rolls out, we will see a decrease in infections; further research into long COVID will continue and people will have access to long COVID clinics throughout the UK.
"I also hope lessons are learned from this pandemic around infection control measures in hospitals to protect patients and staff, and around creating support networks for staff working in a challenging environment."