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From Loss of Fingers to Shortness of Breath, COVID-19 Has Long-term Effects

Vanessa Cassidy lost her thumb. Lakeisha Hollingsworth, who worked out every day, suffers from fatigue and extreme shortness of breath. Together, they are moving forward, reclaiming their lives—with courage and determination.

Although it’s too soon to form definite conclusions, the coronavirus may have an impact on patients’ health that lasts well beyond their recovery–regardless of their age, prior physical condition, or the severity of their COVID-19.  Two patients–one a senior citizen who spent weeks on a respirator, the other a physical fitness devotee who tested negative after 14 days in quarantine–speak about the post-COVID-19 issues they now face. Medical experts are not sure why certain COVID-19 patients become long haulers and continue to suffer from the lingering effects of the virus.

Becoming Ambidextrous

For nearly four months this year, from mid-March to early July, Vanessa Cassidy, of North Philadelphia, was a COVID-19 inpatient. She was attached to a ventilator, underwent a tracheotomy and received pulmonary rehabilitation care. After many weeks of inactivity, Cassidy also required physical rehabilitation to relearn to walk. Physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist, Dr. Kimberly Heckert, also treated Cassidy for wrist drop, which had left her unable to extend her wrists and move her hands due to compression of the radial nerve, which carries signals from the brain down the arm and to the hand.

Dr. Kimberly Heckert

Dr. Kimberly Heckert

Dr. Heckert referred Cassidy to orthopedic surgeon Dr. Matthew Wilson at the Philadelphia Hand to Shoulder Center. A couple of weeks after Cassidy was discharged from rehabilitation, Dr. Wilson determined that clotting had cut off blood flow to Cassidy’s right thumb–requiring its amputation. Dr. Heckert believes the clotting was possibly due to COVID-19.

“So far, the pain is not too bad,” says Cassidy a week after her amputation and just a few days ahead of her 67th birthday. “I’m having weekly occupational therapy on my hands. I’m right-handed so it’s hard for me to handle things now, but even before the surgery, I was already working hard to master the use of my left hand. And I’m getting fitted for a prosthesis.

“Dr. Heckert is keeping in touch and encouraging me, which I appreciate. So are my family and neighbors, who gave me a wonderful welcome home and are taking good care of me. So my spirits are good, and I’m just going to keep going and going.”

Fighting Her Way Back to Full Fitness

Thirty-four-year-old registered nurse Lakeisha Hollingsworth, of Olney, is devoted to physical fitness. Until last spring, she worked out six days a week, incorporating cardio, yoga, kickboxing and a spin class. But all that changed in late March, when she contracted COVID-19 from an asymptomatic pediatric patient. Her physical fitness may have enabled her to avoid hospitalization, but her quarantine was hardly restful.

“At first, I didn’t have a fever or cough, just really bad headaches and back pain, which I thought was from working overnight,” she recalls. “But throughout my 14-day quarantine, I had really bad shortness of breath and chest pain.”

Dr. Jesse Roman

Dr. Jesse Roman

Fortunately, Hollingsworth tested negative for COVID-19 following quarantine; unfortunately, she continued to experience fatigue and respiratory problems, leaving her unable to resume work or workouts. She does do some resistance band training and low-impact exercises, but can’t come close to her normal routine because of fatigue and extreme shortness of breath. Walking around the block can be a struggle for her.

“After quarantine, I had a pulmonary function test, a chest X-ray, an echocardiogram and a stress chest, which all came back normal. This left my first pulmonologist stumped. So I sought a second opinion from pulmonologist Dr. Jesse Roman at the Jane and Leonard Korman Respiratory Institute.

Dr. Roman administered a repeat CT scan and pulmonary function test, which did not indicate the cause of her fatigue and breathing problems. As of yet, he isn’t certain if Hollingsworth’s problem is pulmonary or cardiac in nature.

“It’s really been tough,” she says. “At this point, I’m just taking each day at a time. I haven’t gotten any better, but I haven’t gotten any worse. I’m grateful for that but I’m ready for it to be over.”

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COVID-19, Patient Perspectives