'I've been through 15 weeks of hell': 'Long-haul' Covid-19 sufferers tell of 'debilitating' after-effects

Just a few months ago, Ben Fisk from Leeds was a fit and healthy 33-year-old, exercising in the gym three times a week, and working as a busy freelance media manager.

By Joanna Wardill
Monday, 6th July 2020, 6:00 am
Updated Monday, 6th July 2020, 4:12 pm

But fast forward to today and after experiencing classic Covid-19 symptoms for a week in mid-April, he says his life now feels "on hold" as he struggles with a catalogue of debilitating after-effects of the virus.

"I feel like a 90-year-old in a 33-year-old's body. I have to live life at two miles per hour. If I do anything too much or too quickly my body soon punishes me for it. Even simple things like walking up the stairs leaves you breathless on some days."

But Ben's experience is far from unique. He is one of a growing number of people to suffer post viral effects – now thought to be around one in ten people who contract the virus.

Ben Fisk, 33, of Leeds, who is one of a rising number of people suffering from 'long-haul' Covid-19 symptoms. Picture: Bruce Rollinson

Facebook groups are being created across the world - a quick search finds the likes of 'UK Covid Long Haulers', 'Long-haul Covid fighters', 'Covid Long Haulers Canada' - as people desperately seek solidarity.

Ben, who joined one of the Facebook groups, said: "There are thousands and thousands of previously fit and healthy 20, 30 and 40 somethings. Some of the people I speak to have been going with this since January and February."

His problems started in April when he had classic Covid symptoms - a lengthy cough, breathlessness, temperature, shakes, stomach and chest pains for a week, and then a 10-day recovery period.

"I improved and got to about 80 per cent and thought the was it, the home straight, but in fact it was just the start," he said.

Tony Mann, 31, of Wetherby, has been ill since battling classic Covid symptoms back in March. Picture: Bruce Rollinson

Since then he has had "waves of different symptoms" including chest, throat and head aches, tingles in hands and feet, brain clouding, dizziness, severe indigestion - some of which sparked an ambulance call-out - before now "levelling out in a state of post-viral fatigue".

He said: "It seems to get into everything - every little crack and crevice and leaves its mark behind.

"My friends struggle to understand why I'm still out of action. All the information we had before suggested that if Covid didn't hospitalise you, it would be over in seven days. But the sheer number of people still reporting long-term problems in June tells you that this has become a serious issue.

"We don't know if and when we will fully recover. We have something which is not in the doctor's script."

Tony Mann, 31, who is one of a growing number of people reporting long-term after-effects of Covid-19. Pictured with his family - who all fell ill between March and April, wife Amy and children Sienna, four, Savannah, three, and Wyatt, one. Picture: Bruce Rollinson

Tony Mann, 31, of Wetherby, said he has been through "15 weeks of hell" and is still suffering.

He, and Ben, are hoping to raise awareness to urge the Government and scientific community to recognise and research the long-term effects of Covid which are leaving their lives "in limbo".

In March, classic Covid symptoms swept Tony's house, taking down every member of his household within the space of three weeks.

First was Tony, who began with a severe headache and then fever, body pains, muscle aches and chills. When breathlessness hit, he was rushed to Harrogate Hospital where a consultant diagnosed Covid and sent him home to isolate.

Sheffield Hallam's Advanced Wellbeing Research Centre which now house a new research and innovation unit, RICOVR, to support people to recover and rehabilitate from Covid-19.

Tony's wife and a friend staying with them fell ill three days later and then their three children followed suit over the next three weeks - one-year-old Wyatt had a cough and fever lasting four days, two-year-old Savannah had seven days of fever, cough, sleeplessness and viral rash and four-year-old Sienna had a flare-up of her chronic hives, usually indicative of a viral infection.

But while the rest of his family has seemingly now recovered, Tony has been left battling a disturbing array of symptoms - including stomach pains, sunburn sensation all over the body, sleep apnoea, racing heart, chest pains, brain fog and fatigue.

Repeated calls to his GP has left him with a cocktail of drugs to help him get through the day. And two inhalers which he was prescribed years ago but "never had to use them before", he now needs to take twice daily.

"My wife quit her job to look after me - it's crippled us financially. I didn't want to be ill for 15 weeks this year. I didn't choose this. I'm 31. I shouldn't be on as much medication as if I'm 70. It's ridiculous."

He said finding others who are going through the same thing on Facebook has been his saviour. "I just started to think 'I'm not alone'.

"We've all been on this horrendous journey.

"For me, I think we're clearly a valuable resource to the medical community, scientific community and to politicians who are putting up economic solutions for the future.

"If it's one in 10 people potentially debilitated to this level - that's a huge amount of workforce not being able to work.

"Because I have gone through all these symptoms, I don't want all that pain for nothing. I would like to pose [a question] to the Prime Minister or Health Secretary: 'Do I matter? Will I ever run again or be able to tackle the walk to school? Can I be reinfected?' It seems that I'm part of a forgotten group."

Ruth Stafford, 50, who lives in Meltham, near Holmfirth, ended up in hospital in January with what she later realised were Covid symptoms - chest pain, tingling and severe breathlessness.

But she is still off work six months on and is on waiting lists for tests under cardiology and neurology as she hunts for answers for her long-term issues which have included chest heaviness, numbness, and abdominal and back pain.

She said: "My life has gone from someone who worked around 50 hours a week and enjoyed climbing hills in the Lake District, to one where I can't seem to get better than a half day functioning and that is when I'm on a 'good day'."

She added: "People need to know that the picture isn't that you're ill for a couple of week's with flu-like symptoms or you're critically-ill on a ventilator. There can be a middle ground of it massively impacting your life."

The scientific community is, however, starting to turn its attention to the rising numbers of people reporting long-haul Covid-19 issues.

Markos Klonizakis, is an academic at Sheffield Hallam's newly-launched RICOVR unit, which aims to support people to recover and rehabilitate from Covid-19.

He said initially science was rightly focused on the immediate effect of Covid and how to preserve life but he says it is now able to start shifting focus towards the after-effects and rehabilitation.

He said: "Clinicians are well aware of the need - they are seeing people, they want them to get well and fully back to normal lives and back to society. Unless we identify the needs, we can't really solve the problem. That is what we are trying to do at RICOVR."

Markos said: "People need to understand how serious it is. It's a serious condition. Most of us will get through it mildly but there are people whose lives are affected quite strongly.

"The main problem is that it's something novel. We are not really sure what we are dealing with. If we don't know what the long-term effects are going to be, it's really difficult to treat."

But Markos said there will be no quick solutions - with the process of research taking time, from finding clinicians and cases, to obtaining funding and passing ethics before even beginning to test theories.

He said: "We really need research and need it quite soon actually. And this is an appropriate time to start getting progress underway."

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