For the first time since August 2022, Breneman, a college instructor and Erie School Board president, feels well enough to walk short distances and drive his car

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Jay Breneman's electric wheelchair sits, unused, in the 41-year-old Erie man's garage, near his three bicycles.

For the first time in 15 months, Breneman feels well enough to walk short distances and drive his car. The overwhelming body aches and fatigue he faced on a daily basis have suddenly and surprisingly gone away.

"I had been transitioning my life to being a bed-bound person," Breneman said. "I had moved my office closer to my bedroom and just focusing on never really leaving the house. ... Now, I'm thinking maybe next spring or summer I'll start riding my bikes again."

Breneman has been dealing with long COVID, a range of health problems that affect people after their initial COVID-19 infection. Though up to 40% of COVID-19 patients experience long COVID, few of them have developed as severe and long-lasting symptoms as Breneman has.

Besides the aches and fatigue, Breneman also suffered shortness of breath, rapid heartbeat, chest pain, "brain fog" and migraines. It all started after he contracted COVID-19 in August 2022.

"It was a mild case, like how many long COVID cases start," Breneman said. "But after several days, I started feeling short of breath, and later the other symptoms developed."

From January: Jay Breneman's battle with long COVID: 'Life is just on a major pause right now'

Any mild exertion, such as walking to the mailbox or visiting the doctor, exhausted Breneman to the point that he needed almost a full day to recover.

Eventually he used the electric wheelchair to attend medical appointments at the Erie Veterans Affairs Medical Center. A college instructor and Erie School Board member, Breneman had to teach classes and attend meetings virtually.

"The worst part was that I have three young children and I couldn't be an active father," Breneman said. "I couldn't go out and play with them. I couldn't attend their games or activities."

Using CPAP machine, cannabinol oil improved Breneman’s sleep

Breneman saw a battery of physicians and other medical providers, 14 different specialists in all. He underwent a sleep study, where doctors discovered Breneman has sleep apnea.

In January, he began sleeping with a continuous positive airway machine, commonly known as CPAP.

"I started using it and I woke up more refreshed than I felt in months, though I still wasn't sleeping through the night and it didn't help with other symptoms," Breneman said.

In a last-ditch effort for relief, Breneman qualified in April for a medical marijuana card. He told a dispensary pharmacist that he was looking for better sleep and didn't want to get high.

He was provided with cannabinol oil with low-dose tetrahydrocannabinol.

"I put a drop on my tongue and I slept like a baby that night, eight hours straight," Breneman said. "I felt no greater joy, no greater relief, than that first night's sleep."

'Something didn't feel normal'

Breneman gained more relief in June when his Erie VAMC provider prescribed Cymbalta, which reduced his chronic pain by about half. He also felt well enough to start water therapy.

But his most significant, and most surprising, improvement happened on Oct. 20.

"I had received the new COVID-19 vaccine a few weeks earlier and then someone in the family tested positive for COVID," Breneman said. "I got a prescription for (the antiviral drug) Paxlovid. I took the first dose and when I woke up the next morning, something didn't feel normal."

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The overwhelming fatigue that plagued Breneman for 15 months had disappeared, and his remaining chronic pain was gone.

"I actually had energy. I felt chipper," Breneman said.

Fewer long-COVID cases but some battle symptoms for 2 years

Long-COVID patients are recovering from their illness, though it is usually a gradual process, said Dr. Jeffrey McGovern, an Erie pulmonologist who oversees the northern tier of Allegheny Health Network's Post-COVID-19 Recovery Clinic.

Not every long-COVID patient has the same symptoms, though many deal with fatigue and shortness of breath due to lung scarring.

"The most common issue is with their lungs and it just takes time for the lungs to heal," McGovern said.

McGovern has not seen as many new long-COVID patients over the past six-to-eight months.

He attributes the decline to greater immunity in the population, due to vaccines and previous infections, and the recent COVID-19 subvariants that don't seem to cause as much lung damage..

"But we are also seeing that long-COVID symptoms can last two years or more," McGovern said. "We still don't have a crystal ball. There is no specific timeline for recovering from long COVID."

McGovern added that he has not seen any sudden, unexpected improvements in patients' long COVID after receiving an updated vaccine or doses of Paxlovid.

Breneman said that he has read about it happening to others. In some cases, the improvements seem permanent, but other patients report the effects only lasted weeks or months.

"Whether it's permanent does weigh on my mind," Breneman said. "It's why I'm not going out much among large crowds, and I wear an N95 mask when I do go out. I really don't want to get COVID again."

'Boy you are talking with the wrong person'

The one night he did mix with a bunch of people was Nov. 7, election night, when he visited Erie County Democratic Headquarters to congratulate a few of the winners and visit old friends.

He came across a man who kept asking why Breneman was wearing a mask, then hounded him with "COVID-19 is a hoax" theories. The man was eventually escorted from the premises.

"The first time that I go out among a crowd in 15 months and that's what happens," Breneman said as he shook his head. "I told the guy, 'Boy are you talking to the wrong person.' I never cussed someone out so much in my life."

Breneman's increased energy was one reason why he decided to run for Erie School Board president. He was elected to the post Wednesday.

But other than attending school board meetings in person and going to some of his children's activities, Breneman continues to spend most of his time at home.

He still teaches PennWest Edinboro and Case Western Reserve classes virtually, though he now has the energy to correct test papers soon after class ends.

"I'm not quite back to where I was in August 2022," Breneman said. "I still have some discomfort on my left side, but it's tolerable. My breathing still isn't normal. My left lung is still rough. But things are much better than they were a year ago."

Contact David Bruce at [email protected]. Follow him on X, formerly known as Twitter, @ETNBruce.



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