‘It felt like an overnight strange dream’: COVID-19 survivors share the road to recovery in new McMaster study

·4 min read

Before the pandemic, Dan Papalazarou played tennis twice a week, golfed, biked and went on hikes. The 57-year-old got sick maybe once per year, if that.

Papalazarou, an automotive researcher who lives in Stoney Creek, never expected that COVID-19 would put him on a ventilator for nearly a month.

“It doesn’t seem real,” Papalazarou said. “The quick deterioration of my condition caught me by surprise.”

Papalazarou is one of the participants in a current research study at McMaster University looking at COVID-19 recovery in people aged 40 and up. The study is monitoring the long-term impacts on people who spent at least one night in hospital after testing positive for COVID-19.

In spring, Papalazarou caught COVID-19 from his wife, who’s a health-care worker.

His symptoms were mild at first. He developed a small fever and took over-the-counter medicine. Within four days the fever got worse, and he started to feel chills and have fainting spells.

In early May, Papalazarou was admitted to hospital. He received oxygen in progressively high doses. By the third day, his blood oxygen levels dropped to 50 per cent. He was put on a ventilator.

When he woke up from his induced coma, it was 22 days later.

“It felt like an overnight strange dream,” Papalazarou said. “It was my family who had to live through the daily updates on my condition.”

Marla Beauchamp, who is leading the McMaster study, is interested in knowing the short- and long-term effects of becoming seriously sick with COVID-19.

“We know that older adults are certainly at a higher risk for severe complications from COVID-19,” she said, noting she’s particularly interested in the recovery of people who are frail.

Beauchamp’s research is an extension of the Coronavirus Registry — a McMaster platform for data on confirmed and presumed COVID-19 hospital admissions in Waterloo, Hamilton, and Niagara regions that is being led by a team of McMaster researchers.

Her study follows COVID-19 survivors through phone interviews and home visits every three months after their discharge for a year. So far, they’ve been collecting data for the first three months of recovery.

“The biggest striking thing so far is the variability,” she said. “There are some patients who got quite ill and then had what seems like a better recovery, and then there are other patients who are still really struggling with symptoms over the longer term.”

Another patient in the study said she continues to experience symptoms months after being discharged from the hospital in August. The 72-year-old only wanted to be identified by her initials S.A. out of fear that others might think she’s still contagious, and other stigma. S.A. received oxygen, but was never put on a ventilator. She said she still feels tired enough to be able to sleep day and night, has numbness on one side of her leg, and recently lost a third of her hair — likely from trauma caused by a lack of oxygen.

“Patients can certainly have symptoms for much longer from damage caused by the virus but are not considered contagious in this chronic phase,” Beauchamp said in an email, noting patients are usually no longer considered contagious 10 days after symptoms develop.

Beauchamp noted common long-term symptoms among COVID-19 survivors based on data from other countries include fatigue, shortness of breath during exercise and joint pain.

Beauchamp hopes to release data from the three-month followup before the end of the year.

“We’d like to be able to help provide data that will guide us in understanding what sort of services and rehabilitative care patients will need.”

After Papalazarou was discharged in June, he needed help walking for a few days after lying in bed so long. In the month following, he dealt with aches in “every muscle and joint,” which led to difficulty sleeping.

In July, he began increasing his activity, going on walks, but he’d have “extreme fatigue” which required him to rest for a few days. In August, he didn’t have as much fatigue, although he experienced minor tendinitis in his right shoulder and swelling in his right hand. He’s not sure if it’s from COVID-19 directly or from his stay in the hospital.

By September, his symptoms almost completely subsided. Now, he has minor swelling, aches and pains, but he says he’s mostly back to normal.

“The recovery was relatively quick considering how severe the infection was,” Papalazarou said. He’s grateful for where he’s at considering what he’s heard about other patients’ long-term symptoms.

Although other members of his household — even some older than him — caught COVID-19, the virus hit him the hardest “by far.”

“You don’t know whether you’ll be the one that gets away with the mild symptoms that many people do, or have the severe reaction that I did,” he said. “You don’t want to take that chance to find out.”

Maria Iqbal, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Hamilton Spectator