Months after his hospitalization for COVID-19, Gary Degrijze still can’t grasp a coffee cup handle. Ron Panzok suffers from pain in his left foot. Shirelle White needs supplemental oxygen to breathe.
The three are among the many COVID-19 patients who are enduring the effects of the disease months later. The virus is so new in humans that scientists don’t know how long patients will continue experiencing debilitating long-term effects and whether some of them will have complications the rest of their lives.
“It leads to a lot of frustration,” said Dr. Ewa Rakowski, a pulmonary critical care doctor at Stony Brook Medicine, which is preparing to open a specialized center for those with long-term COVID-19 complications. “They want an explanation and want to know when they can expect to feel back to normal, and we just don’t really have that yet.”
It’s not just those who were hospitalized with severe symptoms of COVID-19 who are still struggling.
“We are also seeing patients who didn’t require hospitalization or really much medical care, and they’re still coming in with the prolonged symptoms of shortness of breath, fatigue, persistent cough and mental fogginess,” Rakowski said.
Degrijze, of Bellport, doesn’t fit most people’s image of someone who almost died of COVID-19. He’s 49 and had to pass a strenuous physical exam every year for the Army Reserve.
“I’ve been perfectly healthy for the majority of my life,” said Degrijze, who was a United States Postal Service letter carrier for 26 years and hopes to one day return to delivering mail.
He spent 2 1/2 months at Stony Brook University Hospital — most of that time on a ventilator — and another two weeks in rehabilitation.
Degrijze’s breathing has greatly improved, but, “I have good and bad days,” he said. “There are days I might walk halfway around the block and I’m like, ‘I’m starting to feel a little out of breath.’ “
Joint pain means he can’t stand or walk for long, and sitting too much leads to lower back pain.
“I have very limited strength in my right arm” because of nerve damage,” he said. “I barely have any strength in my wrists. It’s like my fingers are jammed at the knuckles. It’s almost as if I had a stroke, and I didn’t.”
Degrijze goes to physical therapy three times a week. Doctors don’t know if his arm and hand will ever fully heal.
“They tell me they don’t know how much strength and mobility in my arm and hand I can get back,” he said. “It may be 90%, it may be 70%. They just don’t know.”
Like ‘walking on rocks’
Other than high blood pressure, Panzok, 66, had no major health problems before COVID-19. He, too, almost died from the virus. He spent about two months in a coma