Article By: Suzie Romig - READ ORIGINAL ARTICLE
Dr. Mike Sumner is a “long-hauler,” suffering from COVID-19-related respiratory and cardiac symptoms for more than a year.
East Coast resident Mike Sumner has visited Steamboat Springs for 24 years and bought a second home locally five years ago, but his stay in March 2020 was unique.
After having close contact with a person who attended an international meeting and then tested positive for COVID-19, Sumner and his grown daughter became the first positively diagnosed COVID-19 cases in Routt County. He struggled with side effects from the disease for more than a year as a “long-hauler” and still sees a pulmonologist and cardiologist.
“I am still not symptom-free today from COVID,” Sumner said.
Since Sumner is an internal medicine doctor who now works in the pharmaceutical industry, he quickly sought out a test when he arrived in Colorado in spring 2020 and self-quarantined at the family’s second home. Even as a doctor, his experience of having COVID-19 “was not a walk in the park.” He was initially very sick for more than week, he said, “breathless, coughing continuously and no energy.”
“It wasn’t a pleasant experience. Obviously, people were asking where I’d been since arriving in Steamboat,” Sumner said. “It was little scary back then. Everyone was nervous. We didn’t have a clue what was ahead of us back then, but (Dr. Brian Harrington) and his team were great at looking after me.”
COVID-19 long-haulers are patients who suffer from symptoms more than a month after being diagnosed. Although Sumner was previously healthy, post COVID-19, his lungs suffered from chronic inflammation similar to bronchitis, with bouts that lasted about a week every three weeks for almost a year.
He said his heart rate has been “all over the place,” without being able to recover to a resting heart rate even 30 minutes following activity. The diagnosis was autonomic dysfunction of the heart causing variable heart rate, Sumner said.
Harrington and Sarah Hopfenbeck at Yampa Valley Medical Associates say their practice has seen a small subset of COVID-19 long-haulers. Those patients experienced respiratory complications, constant headaches, lingering fatigue, impaired sense of smell, brain fog or increased frequency of migraines. Some patients needed to be referred on to specialists, such as a cardiologist.
“The (long-haulers) I have seen have more relentless fatigue. They feel like they never get back to their previous energy level,” said Hopfenbeck, an internal medicine doctor for almost 30 years. “After COVID, they don’t seem to be able to kick the symptoms. One patient after COVID was completely wiped out for couple of months and formerly had high-level energy and was athletic.”
Harrington said a lot of the lingering COVID-19 issues also have a “significant psychological component” that “can be an issue if someone was intubated.”
Dr. Jason Jurva, a cardiologist at UC Health Heart and Vascular Clinics in Steamboat and Craig, said he has seen dozens of local patients who experience chest pain post COVID-19 due to pericarditis, or inflammation of the tissue sack around the heart. He said the viral complication can last up to two to four months, including in young, active individuals.
Hopfenbeck advises long-hauler patients to “treat your body well, give yourself the rest you need, eat a healthy diet and try to exercise but listen to your body if you are tired.”
Patients with long-haul complications could receive treatment at the Post-COVID ICU Clinic at UC Health University of Colorado Hospital on the Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora. The out-patient clinic brings together specialists in pulmonology, cardiology, pulmonary rehabilitation, physical and occupational therapy, and behavioural health to work with patients.
Sumner knows natural immunity has a lifespan, so he received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine in early April this year in Steamboat. The medical doctor said he is concerned about the virus continuing to circulate and create new variants. He hopes telling his experience will encourage more people to get vaccinated.
“Going from being perfectly well to having medical issues for over a year is no joke,” Sumner said. “If you are fit and healthy and have a short-term illness (with COVID-19) and think you will be fine, that will not always be the case.”
The Yampa Valley Medical Associates doctors and the UC Health cardiologist all recommend locals receive the vaccine to avoid possible future health issues and long-term complications.
“Because there is so much that we don’t know about this disease, and we don’t know how many people are going to have these lingering effects, it’s better to protect yourself from getting it in the first place, so you are not going to be faced with these problems down the road,” Hopfenbeck said. “There is enough data and evidence surrounding the safety of vaccines that I have no hesitancy about recommending it. The benefits of it outweigh the risk.”