COVID-19 is universally known - a new disease that quickly took a spot next to heart disease and cancer as a leading cause of death. Affecting even more people, the lingering effects commonly called long COVID remain mysterious.
Dr. Natalia Arizmendez works in the ICU and Long COVID Clinic at Intermountain Medical Center. She saw firsthand as her workplace became the frontline of an international pandemic.
“We were seeing so many patients after COVID illness who spend long hospitalization time in the ICU coming into follow up with significant respiratory problems. A lot of these symptoms were present in patients who were previously healthy before, no lung disease,” said Arizmendez.
As a young doctor, COVID-19 changed her career as a clinician and researcher. Every day she witnessed a constellation of symptoms common to COVID patients leaving the ICU.
“Excessive tiredness, weakness, you can also have shortness of breath, exertional, shortness of breath, meaning with any sort of activity, those respiratory problems get worse, cough, chest pain, and then other cognitive and mental health problems, anxiety, depression, and with patients who spent time in the ICU or prolonged hospitalization, post-traumatic stress,” said Arizmendez.
There’s uniqueness to Intermountain Medical Center’s Long COVID treatment and research. The hospital combines it with a clinic addressing something called Post-ICU Syndrome.
Some symptoms have clear roots in intensive care interventions…the lungs losing strength after relying on mechanical respiration, muscles atrophying from lack of use.
Long COVID adds new wrinkles. Some of which Dr. Arizmendez experienced herself after she overcame the initial stages of her own infection.
“I think I was on the couch for about a week, probably out of service are working in the ICU for two weeks. And then even when I went back, I felt that brain fog, I felt like I was slow to respond, slow processing, a little bit of forgetfulness. And then again, any fatigue with exertion or activity. I'm pretty active. I'd say I work out maybe five to six days a week, and just a little bit of activity, even reading like a page I just felt exhausted and completely wiped out,” said Arimendez.
Arizmendez and her colleagues take hope from their experience with patients.
“Seeing patients who are critically ill coming in following up weaning down on their oxygen, being able to sing again, being able to even just take like a walk outside putting on their weight. It's very encouraging,” she said.
Dr. Arizmendez says after an initial bout of COVID, between 40 and 50 percent of patients experience some lingering symptoms.
To get more answers about long COVID, The Intermountain Healthcare Long COVID navigation line is 801-408-5888.