When Ashley Antonio contracted covid-19 in late March, the Canadian criminal lawyer fought against the common symptoms that come with most cases: fever, body aches, fatigue, headaches.
She would manage her symptoms at home and eventually overcome them, she assured herself. After all, she was a healthy 35-year-old with no underlying conditions who boxed and did strength training four times a week.
Except the symptoms never really went away — they intensified.
Now, 259 days later, Antonio is still suffering the repercussions of a virus that has upended almost every aspect of her life.
She has been in and out of the hospital four times in almost nine months. Her doctors have diagnosed Antonio with arthritis and a condition that causes her heartbeat to dramatically increase when she stands up. Both are long-term effects of the virus, they told her. They also don’t know if, and when, those symptoms will go away.
“Everyone is just told you either recover or you die,” Antonio told The Washington Post on Tuesday. “There’s never talk of all the people that are trapped somewhere in the middle with all of these long-term effects. We’re not recovered. We’re just not covid-positive anymore.”
Antonio is not alone. Doctors still aren’t sure why “long-haulers” continue to suffer the consequences of the disease months later or whether the symptoms will stay with them for the rest of their lives. But public health experts say it’s increasingly clear that many thousands of patients face long-term effects from the virus.
Long-haulers “are in every country, in every language,” Igor J. Koralnik, who started a program for covid-19 neurocognitive problems at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago, told The Post in October. “It’s going to be a big problem. It’s not going to go away.”
So far, clinicians have learned the long-term effects can impact both the old and the young, regardless of whether the case was mild or required hospitalization. Many long-haulers have turned to social media groups to share their experiences and advice.
Antonio, who lives in Edmonton and whose story was first reported by the CBC, said she had been taking precautions and working from home for a month before she got sick. Her best guess is that she caught the virus on a run to the grocery store. She began feeling symptoms around March 25.
But because she did not have a cough, which doctors and health experts then said was one of covid-19′s main symptoms, Antonio thought she only had a stomach flu.
She stayed home and started to feel like herself again days later. But every time she thought she was recovering, symptoms would return. In the next three months, old symptoms and new, graver ones left Antonio tied to her couch. The fatigue was so bad she could shower only a couple of times a week. Her blood oxygen levels would drop dangerously low whenever she took short steps. One day, her brain was so foggy that she could not remember how to hold a glass.
It wasn’t until mid-May when she was taken to the emergency room for the first time. Alone in her bedroom and fighting a high fever, Antonio began hallucinating. Then, she could not feel half of her body or her face. The hospital tested her for the coronavirus, but her results came back negative so she was sent home. About a week later, she was back. She would return two more times in the following months.
“I had every test you could imagine,” she said. But her doctors could still not figure out what exactly was wrong with her. An emergency room doctor suggested she might have long-term covid-19 effects and referred her to a special clinic.
In June, she tested positive for coronavirus antibodies. In July, doctors at a clinic for coronavirus survivors diagnosed her with arthritis and a condition that causes her heartbeat to raise significantly when standing. “But doctors couldn’t explain why my oxygen was still dropping every time I walked or any other symptoms,” she said.
Antonio turned to other long-haulers for more information, joining a Facebook group where she learned, for example, that she wasn’t alone in smelling cigarettes when no one was smoking near her. Other people experienced random smells too, they told her.
“I had a lot of questions and the doctors didn’t have a lot of answers. It was all so new to everyone,” Antonio said. “I just wanted to see if what I was experiencing was ‘normal.’ It was very comforting to know that I wasn’t alone.”
Although her symptoms persisted, in August, Antonio voluntarily returned to the law firm where she works as a criminal lawyer. Some days, she feels okay. But the increased heart rate, shortness of breath, joint pain and headaches are usually daily ailments. She also still suffers from blurry vision and gets skin rashes. Her doctors have now told her it’s possible that her long-term symptoms will come and go for the rest of her life. For now, Antonio said she is taking it one day at a time.
“I’m definitely worried it will be permanent,” she said. “It’s very overwhelming if I think that this is how the rest of my life is going to be.”
Antonio added: “When I have a good day, I no longer think that it will be over. I know I’ll have bad days again. It makes you feel hopeless.”