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A doctor has opened up about living with long COVID.
Early research suggests the coronavirus is mild in four out of five cases, however, even people who have a relatively moderate bout of the infection itself can go on to endure complications.
Dr Jeffrey Siegelman, an emergency physician at the Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, knew he had caught the coronavirus when his breakfast blueberry yoghurt “tasted of nothing” three months ago.
Anxious not to infect his wife or children, the medic isolated in his home’s basement for 40 days, communicating with his family via walkie-talkies.
Read more: What is long COVID?
Despite now testing negative for the coronavirus, 40-year-old Dr Siegelman often finds himself “couch bound” and too dizzy to even write a letter.
Watch: What is long COVID?
Writing in the journal JAMA, Dr Siegelman describes how he woke one Monday with a headache, despite not being “a headache person”.
“Fever followed and the next morning my blueberry yoghurt tasted of nothing,” he wrote.
“Thick emptiness. I knew I had it.”
Dr Siegelman, who has no underlying health issues, endured just “minimal respiratory symptoms” and never required hospital care.
“Yet living with this has been anything but mild,” he wrote.
According to the NHS, anyone who tests positive for the coronavirus or develops its tell-tale symptoms – a fever, cough, or loss of taste or smell – usually has to self-isolate for at least 10 days.
With his fever lingering and feeling the US advice was unclear, Dr Siegelman stayed in his basement for 40 days.
“I talked to my children only through FaceTime or walkie-talkies and saw my wife only by looking up between the balusters of the stairwell,” he wrote.
“Embraces were out of the question when what I needed most was human connection.”
The ordeal also left Dr Siegelman’s parents, who live 600 miles (965.6km) away, feeling helpless and anxious.
“These were but a few of the severe effects of a mild disease,” he wrote.
With long COVID having no set diagnostic test, many patients have expressed frustration when numerous assessments come back normal.
“I did not feel fine and still do not,” wrote Dr Siegelman.
“I have had a rotating constellation of symptoms, different each day and worse each evening – fever, headache, dizziness, palpitations, tachycardia [when the heart beats more than 100 times a minute] and others.”
With every medical test that came back clear, Dr Siegelman initially became anxious he would be pressured to return to work.
Read more: Long COVID given official diagnosis
“I doubted myself multiple times, thinking if I just pushed myself harder maybe I could go back to work and to my regular life, to move on,” he wrote.
“Then I would eat something without taste, would feel my heart pounding uncontrollably for hours or would get so dizzy I could not even write a simple letter.
“Each evening as my symptoms peaked, I was reminded my diagnosis was not in question.”
Luckily, Dr Siegelman’s boss sympathised with what he was going through.
“My employer clearly understood the inaccuracies of current testing, focusing on symptoms instead,” wrote Dr Siegelman.
“This validation was critical, allowing me to find peace and focus on healing.”
While enduring long COVID, Dr Siegelman has struggled to accept help.
“I could not bear to see emails activating my colleagues who were on-call to cover my shifts day after day,” he wrote.
“In fact, I asked the department to reconsider its practice of emailing the entire faculty with the name of the person seeking coverage to assuage the guilt I was feeling.
“Still, as difficult as it has been to accept help, long illness is even worse without help.
“If people had not insisted on helping, had my colleagues not been so supportive in covering my clinical work, these three months would have been marked by an overwhelming amount of additional stress.”
Dr Siegelman recognises not all long COVID patients are so lucky.
“I have a home with a well-equipped basement where I could safely and completely isolate,” he wrote.
“I have a wife and children who have approached my illness with endless strength and compassion.
“I have an employer that recognised the need to use a symptom-based approach for making return to work decisions and that provides a generous salary continuation benefit.
“This is not the case for most patients, many of whom cannot isolate from family and cannot afford to miss even a day or two of work.”
Despite the trauma of enduring long COVID, Dr Siegelman believes the experience will make him a better medic.
“I have been reminded of the need to listen to the patient first, even in the absence of conclusive testing,” he wrote.
“The next time I care for someone with vague abdominal pain, or fatigue, or paresthesia [pins and needles], or any of the myriad conditions that are uncomfortable on the inside but look fine on the outside, I will remember these symptoms are real and impactful for patients.
“I have had ample time to reflect on what it means to be a patient, how an illness ripples through family and community, and how I will use this experience to be a better physician.”
Watch: Can you catch coronavirus twice?