Fatigue, memory loss and an elevated heart rate are just a few of the residual effects Rob Engel, 30, is burdened with after surviving his fight with COVID-19.

Engel, of Manahawkin, tested positive for the coronavirus on March 2, 2021. He was an overall healthy man who stayed active by playing sports and hiking, and had no underlying health issues.

He believes getting COVID changed all that.

“Overall, it was truly a scary experience and I feel lucky to be alive,” said Engel. “I didn’t think someone my age could go through such a brutal battle with COVID-19, but it goes to show you just never know.”

Data show millions of patients across the U.S. suffer from long-haul COVID syndrome, also known as post-COVID syndrome, long-term COVID or chronic COVID, and are still dealing with symptoms of the virus weeks, months and even years after contracting it. The most common symptoms of long-term COVID include shortness of breath, tiredness, fatigue and muscle pain. Long-term COVID sufferers also experience anxiety, depression and other mental health issues due to the aftermath of the virus.

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The number of people living with COVID symptoms varies depending on who’s counting, but the site Becker’s Hospital Review says at least 313,582 New Jersey residents had long-term coronavirus symptoms in 2021.

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During his first four days with COVID, Engel suffered from severe fatigue, followed by a “brutal” sore throat and by day six, fevers that were high and unmanageable, especially at night.

A week after getting the coronavirus, Engel said his body was in so much pain, he could barely move or eat. He started started having trouble breathing, thinking clearly, and his fingernails turned a blueish hue.

“It was a mental struggle at this point, and I truly felt the virus was killing me and there was nothing I could do but keep battling,” said Engel. He spent days 10 through 15 “delirious” and recliner-ridden with severe symptoms, such as low oxygen levels, an elevated heart rate and a high fever.

Thankfully for Engel, his sister is a nurse and brother-in-law a respiratory therapist at Community Medical Center in Toms River. They carefully monitored his symptoms by measuring his oxygen levels and heart rate, which was consistently around 130-140 beats per minute, enough to give Engel “the feeling of running a race while sitting still.”

After surviving his most critical days with COVID, losing his sense of taste, smell and more than 15 pounds, Engel said he finally began to see “a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Engel said he slowly started to feel like himself in mid-April of last year after he started his recovery process. He started to slowly get back to doing daily activities such as walking around his house, brushing his teeth, taking a shower and eating.

Even now, though, Engel said he has daily fatigue, accompanied by occasional memory lapses, decreased endurance and an elevated heart rate.

Engel didn’t go to a doctor when he caught the coronavirus, but he did go to the urgent care center in his town after having the virus for a checkup, where doctors monitored his heart rate and his other chronic COVID symptoms.

Besides hiking, starting a new diet and monitoring his symptoms, Engel manages his symptoms by taking vitamin D, turmeric, B-complex pills and staying hydrated.

He’s also gotten his Pfizer vaccinations, which gave him a low-grade grade fever after his first shot, and severe chills and an unbearable headache after his second.

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Lisa Rodio, 55, of Hammonton, had flown to Florida to visit her mother, who had taken a monthlong trip after her husband (Lisa’s father) died from COVID.

Rodio tested positive for the coronavirus on her trip.

“Unfortunately, for me I continued to have active symptoms. I tested positive 13 times and had to extend rentals and find other places to stay,” said Rodio, who had to stay in Florida an extra three months since she wasn’t allowed to board a plane due to her lingering symptoms and positive COVID tests.

A month after returning to the Garden State, Rodio said a variety of symptoms came back that made her feel “like she had COVID again.”

She continued to work while seeing multiple specialists for her multitude of reoccurring symptoms, which included a chronic cough that “makes her lungs angry,” fatigue, hot flashes, imbalance issues, weak bone health, which caused her to break her wrist and ankle, and brain fog.

At one point, Rodio said, doctors may have thought her post-COVID woes may be genetically linked since her father died from the virus, although doctors told Rodio there was not enough historical data to support that information.

Rodio was consistently seeing multiple specialists and taking medical tests to pinpoint the problem. Doctors tested for things like rheumatoid arthritis and interstitial lung disease.

Because of this, along with managing her plethora of symptoms, Rodio has had to go on short-term disability and temporarily stopped working.

Many Americans with long-term COVID symptoms have had to stop working, which plays a part in the U.S.’s current labor shortage, unemployment rate and other economic issues stemming from the pandemic.

One of the many specialists she was seeing at the time, her pulmonologist, requested she get a cardiopulmonary exercise test (a test that evaluates how a person’s heart, lungs and muscles work collectively) as soon as possible. The test was only offered at certain hospitals, one of them being Inspira Medical Center, which, fortunately for her, also had a coronavirus patient recovery program.

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Dr. Evelyn Balogun, chief medical officer of patients at Inspira Health Medical Group, said more patients are returning with lasting symptoms well after the 14-day protocol during the start of the pandemic.

“They would be back to their baseline, then we increasingly started seeing patients that, even after the period of quarantine, were not back to their baselines and were having lingering symptoms,” Balogun said. This led to talks about what could be done for those patients, which prompted Inspira to create its COVID-19 Recovery Program toward the end of 2020.

The recovery program uses a network of specialists, combined with different therapy and resources, to provide post-COVID symptom sufferers with a specifically tailored plan for them to regain their health.

Via the program, Rodio undergoes physical therapy, occupational therapy and speech therapy, to help with her brain fog and other cognitive symptoms. She also has access to mental health resources to help her cope with her less active lifestyle, anxiety, weight gain and other issues long-term COVID patients deal with.

Inspira says about 200 people have received care at Inspira Medical Center Vineland and Inspira Medical Center Mullica Hill through the COVID-19 Recovery Program since it began in late 2020.

Balogun said patients with long-term coronavirus symptoms varied in age, backgrounds, symptoms, severity of symptoms and how ill they were when they had the coronavirus. The most common symptoms seen in the area were chronic cough and fatigue.

New studies, including one by the European Congress of Clinical Microbiology & Infectious Diseases released in March, show long COVID symptoms also differ with the type of variant coronavirus sufferers contracted.

Studies also show COVID vaccines are shown to lessen the likelihood of long-term symptoms.

Both Engel and Rodio got vaccinated as a way to fight COVID and their lasting symptoms. Both of them also stay active and hope they’ll be able to reincarnate the good health they’ve had before.

“I really do and hope with good faith that symptoms will go away over time,” said Engel, who also noted nothing comes close, not a flu or cold, to the severity of a COVID infection.

Contact Selena Vazquez:


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