Coping with Long-Covid – The After Effects, by Melina TK

‘Fluctuating very much between gratitude and frustration’, Melina’s honest account of her struggle with recovery, now many months after she was tested positive, is a wake up call for us all.

I first tested positive for Covid-19 about 22 weeks ago, and I’m still very much in recovery. Not recovered, still recovering. At the time, I was a fit and active triathlete. A few weeks earlier I had completed my 13th half ironman event and was preparing for my 5th full ironman event. Somehow in the process of moving house, I contracted the virus. And yet despite being young and active, the virus has had a major impact.

The acute phase was mild. I didn’t require hospital treatment. Really high fever for about 6 days, extreme fatigue, headaches and dizziness but no coughing, no breathlessness, no drop in my oxygen stats. Within 10 days the fever was down. Just over 2 weeks later I was testing negative. The relief was incredible. I could start to put this behind me. I was warned that it would take a little while to shake off the fatigue and feel a bit more like myself so I was more than ok to pace myself in the days coming out of isolation. The first day I was able to leave the house I went for a short walk around our community for 20mins or so with a friend. Walking and talking was too much exertion. So we just walked, slowly. And I was really tired by the end of it. But I was better. I had beaten the virus. The fatigue would go. Wouldn’t be long before I could train again and feel like myself. The virus is just a two week thing right? Wrong! For a few people a mild case of Covid can still lead to what is now referred to as Long Covid, people usually with mild acute phases who are suffering crippling symptoms for more than 6 weeks.

Here I am at 22 weeks post my positive test and I still have residual symptoms, that unfortunately the medical community can’t really answer just yet, other than to say its “post-viral syndrome”. I am now one of many Covid Long Haulers. This is now a recognised condition by the WHO. The facebook support group alone has over 25 thousand members. As an endurance athlete, going long is what I do. But going long with Covid certainly wasn’t the plan. Covid with its crazy variability and incessant hold, seems to have defined these last 5 months of my life. I’d rather be the person I was back in April, before this happened. But I am hopeful for a full recovery.

Five months on, fatigue comes and goes. Headaches, come and go. Vertigo, comes and goes in its intensity. Somehow, despite having no breathing issues whatsoever during the acute phase of the illness, I now struggle with chest pains and have exercise induced asthma. Its hard enough grappling with these symptoms in light of my physically active pre-Covid lifestyle, but what greatly compounds this is the unpredictability of it all. One day I feel ok. A little bit more like myself. The next day, I do far less and somehow feel far worse. How do I make sense of this? How can I even attempt to strategize a recovery plan? Too hard too soon and I’ll regress, I know that. I am doing my best to take it easy. But there’s an inherent frustration and anxiety that comes with all of this. I don’t feel like myself. And Its unsettling. I know it could be worse, and there are far worse things to be going through, but that doesn’t stop me feeling any less bad and despondent about it.

I’ve taken a conservative approach to my recovery. Two weeks after my negative tests, I visited the doctor for a check-up. I still had residual symptoms and so wanted to make sure where I stood with physical activity. I was really missing it. I have done many tests and the majority have come back clear. On one level is a great relief. On another though, it leaves questions unanswered. Why the headaches? Why the chest pains? Why asthma all of a sudden? Is it permanent? What’s the timeline on vertigo subsiding? When can I safely ride my bike again? All questions met with resounding uncertainty. And understandably given how new this virus is.

So under the guidance of my doctors and adopting conservative approach I decided after a few weeks to start some physical activity. 15mins a day to begin with at a heart rate of 120. I could walk, swim, or ride indoors. Swim was the first thing I wanted to do. I love the water and I missed it. But even turning to breathe was an issue given my vertigo. Let along attempting a tumble turn. So I started off with a snorkel. Gradually and given the water carries my body weight, swimming improved. I could get rid of the snorkel but it took a few more weeks to be able to flip turn. But I couldn’t really push. Riding a bike outdoors given my vertigo was simply not an option. And running was just the same. So I could swim, walk or ride indoors. And all focused on HR. I had to start from scratch. Square 1. More like Square -1. And with no clear idea of how to manage it, or what sort of timeline I was facing. But I was willing and I still am to take the long term view. If I want to beat this, if I want to be able to enjoy my sport again, I need to be patient now. And I am. Well, I’m working on it truth be told.

On the one hand every time I swim, ride, or jog, I try to look at the positive and celebrate the little win my body is letting me have that day. I’m able to do it again. On the other, my goal oriented athlete ego, takes a battering every time I step out. And I’m reminded of just how much I’ve lost in terms of my fitness in these last few months. I was up there, and now I’m way down here. I’m doing everything I can to get better, I’m not as strong as I was, but I’m finding strength in other ways (at least I’m learning how, not always successful but trying). Some days I feel like I’m progressing, others like I’m regressing. But at some stage I will come out of it! I have to right? Not sure when, but I will. This will be a slow comeback. It’s all about one day at a time. Focusing on what I can and admittedly fluctuating very much between gratitude and frustration.

There has been one positive from this experience. It has given me time. To try something new. I’ve always loved the water. And I love paddling or kayaking. For a while now Ive been wanting to try surfskiing. Covid has given me the time for it. With good friends who have had the patience to take me out, I have discovered a new sport. Every time I swim, bike or run, I am reminded of what I’ve lost. But being out on the surfski, has given me new found confidence. I have no reference point with this. Any day I manage to fall in one less time than before is progress. Every time I manage to go a little further is a little win. This is new, so I can only improve. That coupled with the simple enjoyment of being out on the water, has given me time to myself, a chance to feel a bit more like myself.

I’m working on getting back to the sport I love in baby steps. In the mean time I’m discovering a new sport to help rebuild myself and I’m focusing on my family, my

friends and my athletes. Triathlon will still be part of my life. It’s just that for the next season, it’s going to take a different approach. I’m learning (begrudgingly on some days) to accept that this is how it’s going to be for now.

By Melina TK, Melina is a triathlon coach listed on Sported, click here for her profile.

Thank you for sharing your story with us Melina, we wish you all the best (and patience) on your road to full recovery, love from the Sported Team.

Posted on 13th Oct 2020