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Burcum: A COVID survivor’s long, uncertain journey

Those who escape the hospital aren’t necessarily dealing with a glorified cold

“So, are you two done with COVID yet?”

I get this question a couple of times a week now from family and friends. The concern is appreciated but I’m still not sure how to respond a month after my husband and I tested positive for COVID-19.

The answer is that I think so. I hope so. But it’s too soon to say for sure.

Thankfully, we appear to have made it through COVID’s initial cold- and flu-like symptoms without needing more than Tylenol and rest. We’re extremely grateful, especially now that we have a friend who has become seriously ill.

Life has returned to normal — as much as possible during a pandemic.

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Still, we’re well aware that many who become ill report lingering effects for months. Nerve pain, extreme fatigue, swollen toes, racing heart rates and memory lapses dubbed “brain fog” are among the challenges listed by members of the Facebook group COVID Survivor Corps that I joined.

The years to come will reveal if there are even longer-term effects. For example, the chickenpox virus can cause shingles decades after infection. Will COVID cause something similar during our retirement years?

We’ll never know for sure where we were infected, but the best guess remains the road trip back to Minnesota from a beloved family member’s funeral in Florida. We wore masks, socially distanced and practiced good hygiene. That we still got sick illustrates an important point about the pandemic. The virus is circulating widely across the country. Most people who become ill won’t know where they got it either. There is no public place where it’s safe to let down your guard.

My husband came down with symptoms about two days ahead of me. We both experienced fever, muscle aches, cough, headache, congestion and fatigue, with the worst of it lasting 10 to 12 days. We lost our sense of smell, too. This virus temporarily fries the olfactory system.

Though our symptoms were the same, each of us had a different COVID journey. My husband stoically marched through it, taking a few days off but putting in a full eight hours most days working from home. His fever lasted about 24 hours. He slept in and rested as needed. In the second week, he’d often rally in the late afternoon. Sometimes he felt good enough to hop on the riding lawn mower to vacuum up fallen leaves. Doing so also provided a little shot of normality, which can be an effective tonic on its own.

In contrast, I couldn’t shake the fever. It peaked at 102 degrees during the second week, but typically hovered between 100 and 101 degrees for roughly three weeks. It randomly spikes up to around 100 degrees even now. Fatigue also hit me hard during the second and third week. There was a day when I slept 14 hours. Naps were crucial and sometimes just walking a few steps to lay down seemed overwhelming.

I continued working through the illness, too, but took four days off at the end of the second week to try and kick the fatigue. It helped and I feel relatively normal now, though I’m wondering about COVID “brain fog.” I play the harp and things feel glitchy in translating musical notes to the strings. It could also be stress or that it’s a complicated piece. J.S. Bach is a tough taskmaster.

There’s a misperception out there that if you get COVID and don’t need hospitalization, you’ll just feel like you have a bad cold. Our experience suggests that there’s a lot of area in between. I was sick for a solid three weeks. My husband powered through in less time than that.

Even so, a mild case of COVID seriously disrupted our lives. A key reason we were able to weather it is because of the life stage we’re at. Our kids are grown. Our employers provide paid leave and the flexibility to work remotely. But this pandemic is escalating rapidly and many more will get sick.

What about those who have small children? What will happen to those who can’t do their jobs from a laptop at the kitchen table? What about those who used up their sick time but are now struggling with complications months later?

The answers to these questions are even more elusive than the “Are you done with COVID?” query I face. Families and businesses need more help. This is a time for compassion and innovation.

• Jill Burcum is an editorial writer for Star Tribune Opinion. For more news from Vancouver Island and beyond delivered daily into your inbox, please click here.

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