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For many COVID-19 patients, ‘recovered’ doesn’t mean the fight is over

HOUSTON – You see the numbers reported each day. How many positive COVID-19 cases there are, how many people have died and how many have recovered. But for many patients that are in the “recovered” category, the battle still rages long after the virus is gone.

“I’ve been hospitalized since March 27th,” Victoria Cummings said. “I haven’t been home since March 27.”

Cummings and her husband got COVID-19 at the same time. His hospital stay was only for two weeks. And while she’s now considered recovered, she is far from well and is continuing her rehabilitation at Memorial Hermann’s TIRR Institute.

“I have had to learn to re-talk, to walk, to write, to eat, to stand up,” she said. “For a lot of us, a lot of the after-effects are very real, they’re in your face every day.”

Cummings said she did receive a kidney transplant 20 years ago, but has been healthy ever since.

“I’ve never in my life had a kind of illness where I’ve been in the hospital for four months and I end not being able to write, to talk, walk, you know sit up,” she said.

Cummings wonders if some of her complications come from being in the initial round of Houston area cases when doctors weren’t sure how to treat the virus. During her initial hospitalization, she suffered cardiac arrest, a collapsed lung, an intestinal virus separate from COVID-19, and required temporary dialysis.

Life-long consequences?

The medical community is pleading with the public not to take chances because so much is still unknown about the virus. Who will suffer severe symptoms? Who will suffer life-long consequences?

“We’re still getting our arms around the full clinical spectrum of COVID-19,” said Dr. Peter Hotez, a virus expert and Dean of the National Tropical School of Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine. “I don’t want to come out of this at the other end and see that we’ve created a whole generation of disabled individuals.”

Other doctors agree.

“This is something that can be with you for weeks, months, years later,” said Baylor College of Medicine’s Dr. Lisa Wenzel, who is one of the doctors helping Cummings with her rehabilitation. “They’ve had cognitive impairments, psychological, physical impairments.”

“It’s very difficult to predict what’s going to happen to you,” said Dr. Masayuki Nigo with UT Health’s McGovern Medical School.

Nigo is also helping Cummings with her rehabilitation.

“It’s very difficult to predict what’s going to happen to you,” said Nigo.

‘You’re not done’

Sheldon Weisfeld knows “recovered” doesn’t mean you’re out of the woods.

“You see, people think you’re COVID-negative and that you’re done,” he said. “You’re not done.”

Weisfeld spent 12 days at Houston Methodist Hospital before he was released.

“I get home, we’re thinking I’m getting better,” he said.

But the damage to his lungs put him right back in the hospital. Weisfeld said his oxygen levels began to drop and he was rushed back to the hospital. The doctor told him that his lung had collapsed. He is once again on the mend, but he still worries.

“They don’t know what the long-term residual effects are,” he said. “It’s going to be ‘let’s see what happens three to five to ten years down the road.‘”

The toll on family is also heavy.

“You can’t imagine what this feels like until you wheel your father into the hospital on Father’s Day and upon arrival get told, ‘Ok, you can leave now,’' said Weisfeld’s son, Daniel.

“You think it’s so far away until it’s not and it becomes a lot more real,” said his daughter Sarah.

Quick treatment helps

Dr. Joseph Varon with United Memorial Medical Center hasn’t seen an empty bed since the beginning of the pandemic. He warns people not to underestimate the virus or think it follows rules.

“This is a very new illness to us,” he said. “Every day we learning something about it and every day we get a new surprise,” Varon said.

Varon also says the faster you seek treatment after experiencing symptoms, the better chance you have of lessening the severity of COVID-19 and potential after-effects. Still, he echoes his colleague’s concerns that it is difficult to predict who will suffer severe symptoms or lingering effects.

Varon also said conditions can deteriorate quickly and pointed to a 24-year-old patient in his hospital.

“This past Tuesday, I started getting body aches and fever,” said Heather Valentine.

Varon showed KPRC 2 Valentine’s CT scan, which highlighted inflammation in her lungs. By the time KPRC 2 visited Valentine, her fever had broken and her inflammation was decreasing through treatment.

“It’s like so crazy to me. It’s hard to comprehend because I didn’t feel that bad,” said Valentine.

“You can be not feeling that bad, yet your CT scan is bad from all the inflammation and then the next day you’re not here anymore,” said Varon. “You better start getting used to this social distancing, mask-wearing, washing our hands because the virus is not going anywhere.”