Charleston nurse Sarah Simon was perfectly healthy until she caught COVID-19 in the summer.
At first, she felt like she'd come down with a cold. A bad headache. Lower back pain. Some congestion.
She didn't immediately suspect it was the coronavirus. Simon had undergone outpatient hand surgery a few days earlier at Roper Hospital and figured, maybe, she was reacting to the pain medication she'd been prescribed.
But then she lost her sense of taste and smell. On July 4, test results confirmed it was COVID-19.
Nearly 28 million people across the United States have contracted the coronavirus since the start of the pandemic, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While most of them have recovered within a few days or weeks, a smaller contingent of these patients have suffered from debilitating symptoms with no end in sight.
Eight months after her diagnosis, Simon, who lives in Mount Pleasant and works at Charleston Allergy & Asthma, continues to struggle with a high heart rate, muscle loss, brain fog, tightness in her chest and crippling fatigue. Her sense of taste and smell still haven't returned to normal.
"It has really affected every system in my body. I’m terrified," Simon said. "(COVID-19) stripped my life away as I knew it — completely."
It remains unclear why some patients recover from COVID-19 quickly — or why some experience no symptoms at all — and why other "long-haulers" like Simon don't know when they'll ever return to normal.
White House chief COVID-19 adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci acknowledged in a Feb. 10 interview that some of these symptoms linger in the body long after the virus is gone.
"We do know that there's an unusual syndrome called post-acute COVID syndrome, or PACS," Fauci said. "We are studying this intensively with cohort studies because a certain percentage of people who have symptomatic diseases, whether they've been hospitalized or not, have lingering symptoms for variable periods of time."
Over the summer, Fauci speculated that some of the symptoms Simon and others have experienced, such as brain fog and fatigue, are “highly suggestive” of myalgic encephalomyelitis, or chronic fatigue syndrome. According to a report published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, about 75 percent of patients who have been diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome first came down with an infection of some sorts. It's possible, some experts believe, that the coronavirus could be likewise triggering some of these long-term problems.
Simon is still on a journey to figure out what's wrong with her and when she might start feeling better. These past eight months, she's seen a cardiologist, a physical therapist and a pulmonologist; she's scheduled for her first appointment with a neurologist soon.
For now, she's only working a few days a week for a few hours at a time. Even getting ready to leave the house feels like a Herculean task, she said. She needs to take breaks after taking a shower or drying her hair.
Walking to the bathroom might cause her heart rate to spike to 180 beats per minute.
"I'm exhausted," she said.
She credits her parents and boyfriend for helping her through the ordeal. She's also found a worldwide network of women who have experience similar long-term COVID-19 symptoms.
Many of them, Simon said, are suffering from depression on top of everything else. She, for one, is trying to focus on what's positive.
"I’ve had my days when I’m frustrated," she said. "For the most part, I’m just happy I’m alive. I could have lost my life. I’m definitely thankful.