Sabine Dobel –
It started with a groggy feeling, a physiotherapist says.
Three-quarters of a year later, his doctors in the German city of Ingolstadt are pleased that their patient can speak again and walk into the clinic on his own two feet.
The man, his doctor and chief neurologist Thomas Pfefferkorn assures him, will one day be able to return to his passion of playing tennis — but not at the same level.
The 51-year-old patient, who did not want to be named in this article, is suffering from Guillain-Barre Syndrome, a disorder in which the body’s immune system attacks the nerves, which experts currently believe could be caused by a coronavirus infection in rare cases.
For five weeks, the man couldn’t move, despite being fully conscious for most of that time.
“That is a huge dent in your life,” he explains. “You can’t just go back to the day-to-day.”
Even setting aside such severe cases, many Covid-19 sufferers feel the effects of their illness long after they are officially regarded as recovered.
A survey of 143 patients in Italy revealed that 87 per cent still had one or several symptoms of Covid-19 60 days after their first symptoms appeared. These included fatigue (53 per cent) and breathing difficulties (43 per cent), as well as muscle and chest pain, coughing and loss of smell.
Other studies have produced similar findings. The phenomenon has been branded “long Covid,” or post-Covid syndrome — and it is also seen in people who did not require hospital treatment for their infection.
Some complain of dizziness, others struggle to concentrate: It could be a student who can no longer finish writing her thesis, an engineer who now forgets his PIN, or a diver whose lungs are so damaged he still feels like he’s under water.
Self-help groups are now emerging for this new cohort of victims in the pandemic. Here, people are encouraged mainly to speak about their experiences, support one another and exchange information, says Karl Baumann, who founded such a group in Regensburg, south-east Germany.
“A huge wave is approaching our healthcare system,” says the 52-year-old entrepreneur, who does not know when or if he will be able to fully return to work.
Baumann fell ill in March. He was put on life support, suffered a stroke while in a coma and only just survived. His lungs, heart, kidneys and liver were impacted, and still haven’t fully recovered in certain tests.
But the effects of the illness are not only physical.
“You have to work through the trauma,” Baumann says. His wife, despite having suffered a mild case of Covid-19, also suffers from exhaustion and a lack of concentration.
He compared some of the couple’s conversations to a comedy show in which the characters frequently trip over their own words.
Some sufferers complain of symptoms coming and going in waves over a period of months.
Joachim Meyer, intensive care specialist and head of the pulmonology ward at the Munich Clinic, notes cases of “recurrent symptomatology” and a “wave-like development.”
The novel coronavirus can affect its carrier in three phases, according to US research published in the academic journal JAMA.
Weeks after the onset of an acute infection, people can develop a hyperinflammatory disease likely caused by an excessive immune response which affects organs not impacted by the first phase of the disease, such as the heart or kidneys.
Further down the line, “cardiovascular, pulmonary, neurological and psychological manifestations” could follow, according to the paper, authored by Amish Talwar of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Some patients have been prescribed blood thinners since Covid-19 can increase the risk of thrombosis, stroke or heart attack.
Peter Berlit, Secretary-General of the German Society for Neurology, points to case reports from Singapore which describe patients aged around 40 suffering strokes or blood clots weeks after the initial illness.
Tissue changes with minor haemorrhages have been observed in the brains of people in intensive care due to Covid-19, Berlit adds, which could explain reports of poor concentration and reduced alertness long after.
Concerns have already been voiced that a Covid-19 illness could lead to an increased risk later in life of developing dementia or Parkinson’s disease.
“One should take care before claiming that there is permanent damage,” Berlit warns. “We will be able to give a valid answer to the question of possible late-onset damage over the course of 2021 at the earliest. Fortunately, neurological symptoms can regress for up to one year.”
Meyer points to the coronaviruses SARS and MERS: “After 12 months, a clear improvement is seen in lung changes.”
He also stresses the importance of quality medical care.
“The patients have gone through a lot, sometimes over a period of weeks,” Meyer says. “They must first regain confidence in their own ability to perform.” — dpa