"It's like a heaviness in my chest that I can't shake off."
"I can't work for more than 3 to 4 hours a day."
"When people talk to me, sometimes I can't understand what they're saying."
"...all I can say is that it didn't kill me."
The problem with COVID-19 is that there is no telling how the illness may manifest, and to what degree.
This has been especially true in the second wave, when seemingly healthy young people have fallen severely ill.
But the most daunting part, perhaps, is that COVID doesn't leave you when it leaves you, and recovery could take weeks, months, or even years.
FIT speaks to COVID survivors about their recovery journey and how they are dealing with the aftermath of the infection.
Putting the Pieces Back Together
Although COVID-19 itself is given all the seriousness it is due, once the RT-PCR test turns negative, a person is often considered 'treated'.
But, the reality is that like with many other serious viral infections, the fallout of COVID can linger on long after you've tested negative.
"COVID is a systemic infection that affects your whole body," explains Dr Vikas Maurya, Director, pulmonology, Fortis Hospital, Delhi. "It can have respiratory, muscular-skeletal, neurological and even cardiac involvement."
So it isn't a wonder that fighting it off drains your body of A LOT.
And the battle doesn't quite end with the infection.
"It starts in the morning when I wake up," says Zijah who recovered from COVID in April. "It's a kind of heaviness, an interruption in my breathing, it's very uncomfortable because its constant. Add to that breathlessness and tiredness."
Extreme fatigue is something many COVID recovered patients experience.
Sneha (name changed), a freelance journalist who used to work 3 jobs at once, talks about how she had to cut down to just one.
"I can't work for more than 3 to 4 hours a day. Even if I want to I can't because that's all my body can take, and I just have to accept it."Sneha
Sneha got COVID in November 2020. For her, It's been a long battle with the infection (she was positive for 31 days), and an even longer one with post COVID recovery.
“My post COVID recovery has been more difficult than I imagined it would be. Five months on, I still suffer from brain fog every day. Getting up from the bed is a task. I go into a deep sleep, and I’m mostly drowsy all day.”Sneha
"It felt like one long day stretched into 31 days. I don’t remember the names of my medicines or reports," she says.
Even now, 6 months down the line, Sneha's memory is not what it used to be. "It’s unnerving even now. Its small things, like sometimes I forget if I've brushed my teeth."
Zijah, too, speaks of how she has trouble remembering simple things like names, places, and recipes she's known by heart.
“Its like the things people are saying are just not registering. I need to write them down to remember them.”Zijah
Extreme fatigue also means drowsiness and lethargy during the day.
“I was very tired for 3- 4 months and I didn’t realise why I was feeling that way. I had no motivation to do anything, I would be sleepy all the time, and my sleep cycle got worse.”Priyanka
And a disrupted sleep cycle only makes everything worse.
"After COVID, I don't remember sleeping properly for even one night," says Priyanka. "Falling asleep has been a nightly struggle and I would wake up feeling really tired."
"When Covid left me, it turned me back into a baby." says Sneha. And taking 'baby steps', for her, became more than just a phrase.
"I couldn't, and I still can't walk a few steps without holding someone's hand for support. I have been surviving on very simple food, for the past 4 months now. I have the mobility of a baby, the ability to process information and digest food like that of a baby," she explains.
“I had all these conditions and I’d almost given up on life. I give up every day because of fatigue and brain fog, but we all have to carry on.”Sneha
The Invisible Clutches of Post COVID
“Post COVID symptoms are largely invisible. It was so hard to explain even to my family what I was going through, and to convince them that this is real," says Priyanka.
And the fact that the symptoms can be so erratic and unpredictable, makes it difficult to relate or empathise with others.
"You really will not understand till you go through it." This is what all three of them say.
Listening to each of their experiences, one realises how true this is. They struggle to find ways to explain what they've been through, what they're still going through, testing different words to find the right ones that fit.
“In such a situation its really important to make the person feel validated when they tell you about their symptoms or what they’re experiencing.”Priyanka
"All I can say is post COVID symptoms are very much real. It's not just in your head, and you can't just wish it away with 'positive' thinking," adds Sneha.
Healing Post COVID: 'Be Kind to Yourself'
Give your self time to recover
Don't feel the urge to bounce back as soon as you test negative, or feel like you should be at a certain 'level' of active now that you are recovered, advises Sneha.
"I am the kind of person that used to work 18-20 hours a day. It was difficult for me to come down to 4-5, but pushing myself only made it worse," she says.
"I just had to come to terms with the fact that this is all my body allows me, and it's okay."Sneha
Zijah has something similar to say. "I used to feel guilty for not being at work, but I just had to take the time to recover. Even now I have to tell myself to take breaks."
"I do get embarrassed because I’m always sick. But it’s not my fault. I’m trying my best," Sneha adds.
Take small steps, but keep moving
Dr Vikas Maurya speaks of the importance of moving around.
"When your body has been in a state of inaction for weeks together, it can get used to being in that state. You will start feeling dizzy or weak at the slightest movement."Dr Vikas Maurya, Director pulmonology fortis hospital Shalimar Bagh
Priyanka talks about how working out helps her with brain fog and the feeling of lethargy.
"This is why it's important to start doing some activity as soon as you're able to. Building your stamina helps speed up recovery," says Dr Maurya.
But, says Dr Maurya, "you must keep in mind to start slow and only gradually increase your activity to the earlier level."
Do light exercise without exerting yourself. Dr Maurya suggests yoga, and walking.
Know your limits & be on top of your vitals.
"I have patients come to me saying, 'when I walk for a while my oxygen saturation goes down from 96 to 92, should I be walking?' I tell them that they must walk, but take breaks when necessary."Dr Vikas Maurya
Knowing when to push yourself and when to slow down is the key.
"It's important to keep an eye on your (oxygen) saturation levels." says Dr Maurya. "Stop when you see it dipping, and continue when it gets better."
Breathing exercises can help
These can particularly help people who have had moderate to severe lung involvement.
"Even if they haven't been hospitalised, if they have had trouble with breathing or any lung involvement, we recommend they do some lung exercises, deep breathing exercises, including the spiral breathing exercise."Dr Vikas Maurya
Spiral breathing involves closing your eyes, visualising your feelings, and concentrating on the imagery while breathing deeply and pretending they are dissipating with every breath.
Have a bodybuilding diet
The most important thing according to Dr Maurya is your diet.
He recommends what is known as a 'bodybuilding diet', which is rich in protein.
Apart from this, keeping yourself well hydrated helps immensely.
Priyanka vouches for this, saying "I make sure to eat well at fixed times, drink plenty of fluids and cut down on coffee and alcohol. All of this helps alot."
Maintaining physical hygiene is especially important
COVID-19 weakens your immune system and drains you of energy. You may also be on medication, like steroids which could further lower your immunity.
All of this makes it difficult for your body to fight off other infections that it would have otherwise been able to.
Sneha who has lived through this says, "the fungal infection post- covid is extremely painful. It keeps relapsing so one has to be extremely cautious about it."
"These microbes and fungal spores are all around us, but post covid, we become more vulnerable to them," adds Dr Maurya.
"This is why it's extremely important to ensure physical hygiene to avoid other infections, especially in your private areas."
Monitor your symptoms
This is important to keep an eye out for reinfections.
Keep in constant touch with your doctors and update them on any new developments, advises Sneha.
"Continue to wear your masks, avoid going outside unless absolutely necessary and maintain hand hygiene, and of course full body hygiene," adds Dr Maurya.