Healing from COVID-19
“Have you ever been in a swimming pool, swallowed a mouthful of water, and struggled to get up to the surface? That’s what it was like; I was drowning and was never going to get enough air,” says Wendi Heal, a 68-year-old Londoner, as she reflects on her experience with COVID-19.
In late December 2020, Wendi was taken by ambulance from the Carling Heights COVID-19 Assessment Centre to London Health Sciences Centre's (LHSC's) University Hospital. While initially discharged and referred to LHSC’s Urgent COVID-19 Care Clinic (LUC3), her condition steadily worsened until she was admitted for nine days to LHSC’s Victoria Hospital. Months later, she continues to experience symptoms.
Realizing the importance of sharing her story, Wendi reflects on her journey through a personal blog. “It initially started as a way for me to tell friends and family what was happening, but I found it helps readers realize a little more clearly why they needed to be careful. It helps explain the daily experiences of a patient with this virus.”
Wendi notes that early in the pandemic, she felt these personal stories were absent from news coverage. Like everyone, her family experienced the unfolding pandemic with feelings of uncertainty.
“We came back from a cruise on March 2nd and things started escalating the week after that. It was kind of stunning,” she notes.
The past year has been marked with personal challenges for Wendi. In March 2020, her father experienced a fall and was hospitalized. In May, he opted for medical assistance in dying.
“That morning, I asked him if there was anything special he wanted and he said ‘Yes – rum and coke, chocolate-covered raisins, and ice cream.’ So, that’s what we did,” says Wendi. “It was kind and it was gentle.”
In June, she interred her father and mother – who had passed away in 2019. The next day her son was diagnosed with lymphoma. He began chemotherapy on his 28th birthday.
“It was a stressful time. We were all worried about my son catching the virus, so we became just as rigid in our house as hospital settings,” Wendi explains. “When he finished chemo in October, he was deemed cancer-free and our worries lightened over time.”
In mid-December, Wendi’s son and his girlfriend both tested positive for COVID-19. While they recovered quickly, Wendi started becoming ill.
“By December 20th, it was clear that I was sick. The coughing was painful and I had absolutely no energy. Things were starting to hurt all over and I was not eating properly. I was gradually getting weaker and weaker,” says Wendi. “I had a testing appointment for December 27th, by which time I was pretty sick. They swabbed me but also called an ambulance.”
Wendi was taken to the Emergency Department at LHSC’s University Hospital where she was treated overnight with oxygen and then discharged home. She was referred to LUC3 – an LHSC virtual clinic that helps monitor and manage potential complications for patients recovering at home from COVID-19.
“COVID-19 can present in different ways. Since symptoms can fluctuate over time, it’s important that patients self-monitor and seek care when needed,” explains Dr. Marko Mrkobrada, an LHSC internal medicine physician who helped launch LUC3. “Through LUC3 we were able to safely discharge Wendi to be monitored from home.”
Wendi also enrolled in a research study called VIRTUES through Lawson Health Research Institute (the research institute of LHSC) and the Cardiac Arrythmia Network of Canada (CANet). The study provides LUC3 patients with access to an app where they enter their symptoms three times per day. Patients with worsening symptoms are flagged to the care team for closer monitoring.
Wendi’s symptoms began worsening while at home. On New Year’s Eve, she was admitted to LHSC’s Victoria Hospital.
“Working with our colleagues in respirology, we were able to arrange Wendi's direct admission to hospital and bypass the emergency department,” notes Dr. Mrkobrada. “This is another advantage of following patients through LUC3, ensuring we can quickly and safely deliver the care they need.”
Dr. Cory Yamashita, a respirologist at LHSC, was Wendi’s attending physician. He prescribed treatment with oxygen and dexamethasone – a steroid that helps reduce inflammation. Wendi recalls feeling extremely ill during that time.
“I didn’t have strength to get out of bed. I had lost my sense of taste and smell; everything tasted like wallpaper,” she recalls. “I remember having a cup of tea and it taking too much energy to bring the cup to my lips.”
After a few days, Wendi’s care team advised they may need to consider a ventilator.
“Having conversations with patients who are nearing the point of requiring mechanical ventilation is incredibly challenging due to the unpredictability of COVID-19 and the multiplicity of unknowns,” explains Dr. Yamashita. “This has been compounded by necessary hospital visitor restrictions, making it difficult to involve loved ones in conversations at the bedside.”
“When I think about that day, it upsets me a little because it’s a terrifying conversation to have,” says Wendi. “Not knowing what would happen, I made phone calls to my husband and son and sent e-mails to my brothers. It’s really worrying for a family when they can’t be with you.”
Fortunately, a ventilator was not necessary.
“Rather miraculously, my numbers started improving,” Wendi explains, referring to the inflammatory markers present in her blood. “I felt sheer joy and relief as I began recovering. It was kind of like winning the lottery.”
After nine days in hospital, Wendi was discharged back home with oxygen, which she was weaned from in a matter of days. She was once again monitored by the team at LUC3.
“Wendi wanted to go home and knowing she would be monitored through LUC3, we were able to discharge her in a safe and patient-centered way,” says Dr. Mrkobrada.
Wendi continues to see another respirologist at LHSC, Dr. Michael Nicholson, through LUC3 due to lingering symptoms.
“I have fatigue and brain fog. I sometimes have trouble finding the words for things,” Wendi says. “I also have trouble concentrating, like when I am reading.”
Wendi has signed up for two additional research studies to assess her respiratory and neurological function. She hopes the studies will help medical researchers in understanding more about COVID-19.
“It’s fairly typical of patients with post-COVID syndrome to have persistent and fluctuating symptoms,” adds Dr. Mrkobrada. “The difficulty is that we don’t really understand the disease process. We hope that local research will help address that.”
Wendi credits the care teams at LHSC for their perseverance throughout the pandemic.
“I could see through the masks how stressed they were while doing their best to care for patients,” she says. “Another reason I started blogging was to express my gratitude for the people who kept me alive.”
Looking forward, Wendi notes a sense of hope. “My family had a terrible year and there’s nothing fair or logical about it. But I’m getting better and from a personal standpoint, I am definitely stronger.”