news

In March 2020, Gemma caught COVID-19. She's been sick ever since.

In February 2020, Gemma Duggan had just been promoted to a senior position at her job, was a regular gym-goer, and the busy mum of two kids under eight.

Apart from some sinus issues, the 39-year-old from Lichfield, England, was completely healthy. 

By the following month, she'd caught COVID-19. Her first symptoms were an upset stomach and a slight temperature, followed by a cough. 

It only got worse. And she's been horribly sick ever since. 

Watch: Inside a 'long COVID' clinic in England. Post continues after video.


Video via YouTube/Guardian, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YsJr2u3V83U

Over the weekend Gemma once again had to sit out of the fun while the rest of the family went for a walk in the woods. Her son turned to her and said, "I want you to get better now, Mum."

"It broke my heart," the Brit wrote on Twitter.

ADVERTISEMENT

As Gemma told Mamamia, she wants nothing more than to get better too. She says her symptoms have improved "a little" in the past few weeks, but that's only to get her to the point of being able to perform the basics of life: washing, grocery shopping, cooking and picking the kids up from school.

Her 'improvements' however, aren't linear. The symptoms continue to come and go getting worse or slightly improving in waves, changing what she can and can't achieve on any given day. Mentally, it's challenging. And the only way Gemma is getting through it is to "focus on the positives of today, not what might be tomorrow."

Gemma is one of a growing number of people around the world who say they are suffering from 'long COVID,' a term used to describe the effects of COVID-19 that continue for weeks or months beyond the initial illness. 

Before COVID, Gemma was busy, active and healthy. 13 months after catching the virus, she's still sick. Image: Supplied.

In the UK alone, the Office for National Statistics reports at least 1.1 million people have reported long COVID symptoms. In America they're known as post-COVID 'long haulers' with Harvard Medical School reporting early studies suggest one in 10 people with COVID-19 are developing lingering symptoms. 

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has speculated that long COVID likely is the same as or very similar to myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS), which can be triggered by other infectious diseases such as mononucleosis, Lyme disease, or severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), another coronavirus disease.

When Gemma first caught the virus, she managed her symptoms at home for the first few months. 

"March and April [2020] are a bit of a blur. I was advised not to go to hospital. At my worst my lips turned blue, I couldn’t say a sentence without being short of breath and I had crushing pain in my chest. Even so, I returned to working from home in late April, feeling a lot better but still not right."

By July, however, she was in hospital with crushing pain in her chest, issues with her heart rate and overwhelming fatigue. She remained bed bound for months, and 13 months on, Gemma still isn't back to normal and is regularly back in bed by 2pm.

ADVERTISEMENT

Early on in her COVID journey, her daughter snuggled into bed and asked, "Mum, are you going to die?"

"That was heartbreaking. They’ve been strong through all this. In some ways I have had more time with them than when I was working, but due to my lack of energy it is not the quality time I would like. So they get more screen time and board games, where they used to get sports and fun," said Gemma.

"The things I used to do around my busy life, now are my life," she added"I struggle with daily tasks and I am in constant pain."

Thanks to her lingering illness, Gemma has been forced to leave her job. She was told the door would be open to go back when she was ready, but right now that feels like a distant dream.

"Financially it's been a struggle, as I am the main wage earner," she said. "My husband has a temporary contract but there are still worries about the future."

On April 11 she passed out from pain in the shower and had to take to her bed with extreme fatigue. 

While her GP has been supportive, Gemma has struggled to get any kind of holistic medical intervention as she struggles with the enduring symptoms of COVID. There are more than 60 'long COVID' clinics across the UK, but none in her area. She hasn't seen a doctor in person or had any tests since November, and it's left her feeling abandoned by the medical system.

"Western medicine just isn’t set up to support those with chronic illnesses. I have done my own research and figured out a range of supplements and a diet to help. Right now I would like a medical professional to talk this through and advise what else I can do," she said.

ADVERTISEMENT

Gemma wants nothing more than to get back to work and contribute to society. She wants her government, and the governments of the world, to acknowledge that it's not "survival or death." That there are longer-term effects being felt by individuals that are largely being ignored. 

There are some reports from long COVID sufferers, who say they felt significantly better after their first vaccine dose. A UK study has backed up the link, however one of the authors from the University of Bristol is the first to point out the reported results come with many caveats, such as a small sample size and lack of peer review, as reported by the ABC.

As is the case with everything when it comes to COVID-19, our science and medical experts have to learn as they go because the virus is still so new.

A quick scroll through the #LongCovid hashtag on Twitter and a community of 'long haulers' can be found discussing remedies and symptoms and comparing tales of being told they are "exaggerating" their suffering. Informal support groups have also started popping up, created and curated by sufferers themselves. 

ADVERTISEMENT

The COVID-19 death toll has now surpassed three million, with hundreds of thousands of new cases still being diagnosed worldwide every day. The focus right now therefore, remains on prevention and saving those fighting for life in ICU. 

But as Gemma and the other long COVID sufferers can attest to; "You don’t just die or recover from COVID. There is a range of suffering in between."

The consequences of which our health services and economies could be dealing with long after the pandemic is brought under control. 

Feature image: Supplied/Gemma Duggan.