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This Dalhousie graduate thought she was over COVID, but now she’s too weak to walk

When Amy Tenenbaum graduates from Dalhousie University on Friday, she’s hoping she’ll have the strength to walk across the stage to get her diploma.

Tenenbaum’s life has changed dramatically since he tested positive for COVID-19 in January. The 22-year-old from Rhode Island is one of several hundred people in Nova Scotia who are currently showing symptoms of a long COVID. She is so weak that she uses a wheelchair every time she has to leave her home.

“I can’t run for more than a few minutes without gasping for air and having very high heart rates and chest pains,” she said. “At 22, I’m not really able to leave my house or do anything without help.”

Tenenbaum fell ill in January as the Omicron variant was rapidly spreading across the province. She and her roommates all shared some common symptoms and recovered quickly. She returned to classes and resumed her job as a waitress.

In February, she started having dizzy spells and felt weak. One night, walking home from a friend’s house, she collapsed.

“My pulse shot up by almost 200 beats per minute. I had to sit on the street. I thought I was having a heart attack.”

Battery of tests long confirms COVID

This was the first of many visits to the emergency room as her condition worsened. She underwent extensive testing and ruled out other diseases and conditions.

Doctors told her she was dealing with long-term COVID. She was shocked to learn that even a mild fall can lead to serious problems.

“My life has totally changed. I can no longer do the job I used to have. I can’t see a lot of people, a lot of my friends, just because I’m trying to stay safe,” she said.

Tenenbaum tested positive for COVID-19 in January and made a quick recovery. But in February she started having dizzy spells and collapsed one night while walking home from a friend’s house. (David Laughlin/CBC)

“I have high blood pressure. So I have the blood pressure of a middle-aged man with heart disease. I have asthma. difficulty breathing. That is the main burden.”

Last fall, a team from Nova Scotia Health began proactively calling patients three months after their initial COVID-19 diagnosis to ask if they had ongoing symptoms.

About 50 percent of patients over the age of 16 reported having a symptom. Ten percent had some type of functional impairment such as brain fog or muscle weakness.

300 Nova Scotians receive additional support

The Post-COVID team is now working with these patients, providing access to healthcare professionals and support groups to support them in their recovery.

Ashley Harnish, the team’s health service director, says it’s a common misconception that all long COVID cases come from those who were sickest to begin with.

“We now know that this is not actually the case, that people can emerge post-COVID who may have managed all of their acute illnesses in their communities or at home,” she said.

Sofia Nicolls gets up and helps Tenenbaum get some fresh air. (David Laughlin/CBC)

Harnish says about 300 Nova Scotians are receiving additional support due to long COVID, but she believes there are more patients who have not been identified.

Part of the problem, she says, is teaching healthcare providers what to look for. Long COVID is still a new disease and her understanding of it is constantly evolving.

“It’s not as simple as, ‘I have a persistent cough,'” she said of the symptoms. “Nova Scotia is really dynamic. So we have to react quickly to help patients.”

Long road to recovery

According to Harnish, some patients require referrals from specialists, while others benefit from physical therapists or occupational therapy.

“They work with patients to see what’s most pressing or urgent for them,” she said.

Tenenbaum knows she has a long recovery ahead of her. She is still too weak to walk down the street to the bus stop.

She is learning to listen to her body and rest as much as possible. She has joined online support groups to connect with others grappling with long-standing COVID.

Her roommate, Sofia Nicolls, helps as much as she can with shopping, cleaning, and walking around the neighborhood in a wheelchair.

Nicolls says it was shocking to see the change in her friend

“It gave me a new perspective on how serious this can be, especially at any age,” she said. “I think for a lot of young kids it’s, ‘Well, that wouldn’t happen to me.’ But it can and it is serious and should be a serious thought in people’s minds.”

Tenenbaum hoped to be able to go to grad school in the fall. Instead, she will move home with her parents and study online part-time.

She hopes that when she retires for a while, she can make a full recovery.

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