COVID-19 long-haulers battling memory loss, fatigue months later after testing positive

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PEORIA, Ill. (WMBD) — While Illinoisans are celebrating the State’s reopening Friday, the effects of COVID-19 are still haunting people to this day.

“I have three wonderful boys, a wonderful husband, and I’m not going to see them again,” Michele Draher said.

Draher is a sleep tech at UnityPoint Health, and those were the thoughts rolling through her head as she was getting rolled into the emergency room last May.

“It was horrifying. My husband was the one that brought me to ER. He couldn’t come in with me,” Draher said.

Michele was on a ventilator for five days. She had to rely on her doctor to communicate with her family. She said she had a fever between 101-104, muscle and joint pain, headache, and a horrible cough.

“I was taken off the vent June 2,” Draher said. “Before that, they had tried the convalescent plasma, they tried the Remdesivir. My oxygen was still low.”

She says she lost her hair from COVID-19, and to this day still deals with brain fog.

“When you’re sitting there shampooing your hair and every day there’s handfuls of hair coming out, it’s just heartbreaking,” she said. “Talking to people, I just forget things.”

But the worst part was being completely isolated from her family and friends.

“It was very emotional for that, not knowing if you were ever going to see your family again,” Draher said.

And she’s not alone.

Yancy Reynolds, an active 49-year-old, contracted the virus just before Christmas.

“Things like decorating for Christmas. It took me 3 days to string my tree halfway,” Reynolds said.

Normally she’d be cooking the family meal for everyone, but in 2020 she gained 18 pounds in one month from steroids and lack of activity, and she had to rely on her daughter to cook.

“I had shortness of breath, fever, and was delirious from the fever. Went to PromptCare where I saw I had COVID pneumonia. Two days after that in ER until they got breathing under control, then on oxygen for 2.5 months,” Reynolds said.

Yancy said she’s starting to get back to normal, but there’s still a lot of challenges on a daily basis.

“Memory loss. Stamina, fatigue. Not really able to be myself yet,” Reynolds said. “Where if someone else is looking at me, they think I’m fine and that COVID’s over. I’m like everybody else. I wanna get back to the way things were. This is real. To a lot of people, it’s over, but it’s not. Especially for people like me who have long term.”

Reynolds said when she went into the hospital with COVID-19, her mind went to the darkest place.

“With the way I felt that night. I thought I’m not going to come back out,” she said. “I wrote letters to my family, and tried to get everything in order. It sounds dramatic, but when you’re in that moment it’s frightening. When my husband dropped me off, it was like walking your kindergartener to school. You kiss them and pray you’re going to see them at the end.” 

Just months ago, health leaders were worried our hospitals could be overrun with COVID-19 patients.

“I was afraid I was going to have to say, we can’t care for that patient,” Dr. Samer Sader said.

Dr. Sader is the Chief Medical Officer at UnityPoint Health. He says there is hope.

“There is a feeling of accomplishment right now. Regarding everything we had to do to get the hospitals ready for all the patients we had to care for, and to care for the level of illness which was very out of proportion to anything we normally deal with from a single illness,” Dr. Sader said.

Dr. Sader actually got COVID-19 from working at the hospital. He said it took two months for him to get back to normal.

“Truly being isolated because you’re sick and you don’t want to infect your wife and kids is a little different,” Dr. Sader said.

He said one thing the pandemic has taught him, is America needs more nurses.

He credits the progress the United States has seen to the success of the vaccine, and the fearless dedication of medical professionals.

“It was a true emergency. A true pandemic, which we hopefully won’t see again. But people stepped up,” Dr. Sader said.

Michele Draher’s head doctor on the floor she works on, ended up being her primary doctor when she was on a ventilator.

“To see a familiar face was a blessing,” she said.

She said she agrees with Dr. Sader that those in the healthcare field are to thank for the progress we’ve seen.

“They came in and they did what they had to do,” Draher said.

“What do you think got you through all of this?” Sheehan asked. “The love and support from my family. The prayers. And of course the wonderful care from the doctors and nurses,” Draher replied.

Michele said when she came off the vent, the housekeeper came in the room and was crying tears of joy.

“She said, I am so glad to see you. I have prayed over you many times. That’s touching, that’s overwhelming,” Draher said.

Draher returned to work the second week of August. She’d work half days but said it was a lot. Walking made her very fatigued, she still has shortness of breath to this day. She’s had to do home health a few times, including speech therapy.

Draher said she has some family and friends who haven’t decided if they’ll get vaccinated. She hopes her experience can show them that COVID-19 is real and the health complications are extremely serious.

While Dr. Sader said the United States is in a much better place now, Dr. Sader said the treatment of COVID-19 patients will continue far beyond fully reopening.

“It’s important to move closer to normal life, but that doesn’t mean we won’t be dealing with patients who will develop COVID and will continue to have the complications of it,” Dr. Sader said.

This story was a part of the Road to Reopening special aired on WMBD. It aired Thursday, June 10.

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