By Kathy Engle
Yevgeny, a 37-year-old software engineer, suffered for two weeks with the novel coronavirus, and now, nearly three months later, he is free of COVID-19. But he is far from being recovered.
Yevgeny is still off work, suffering from ongoing “brain fog,” with some difficulty concentrating and his speech slightly halted.
He is what doctors are calling a “long-hauler”: someone suffering from post-COVID syndrome.
According to studies from the Centers for Disease Control and the British Medical Journal, 10-30% of patients who had mild to moderate cases of COVID-19 still don’t feel right months after the virus has passed. The condition has been noted by Anthony Fauci, M.D., director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, as sharing characteristics of chronic fatigue syndrome.
A Sutter Health integrative medicine physician who is treating Yevgeny agrees.
“I have treated more than 100 COVID cases in an outpatient setting, and many of them — even young, previously healthy patients like Yevgeny — are not returning to their pre-COVID state,” says internal medicine physician Gina Serraiocco, M.D. “My own caseload is consistent with this early research. I see patients continue to suffer from persistent shortness of breath, brain fog, poor sleep patterns and inadequate exercise months later.”
The majority of people across the nation diagnosed with COVID-19 fight the disease quarantined at home, not in a hospital. As physicians care for large numbers of mild to moderate cases of the disease, there has also been an increase of patients describing long-hauler symptoms.
“I believe this is just the tip of the iceberg for chronic problems caused by COVID-19,” Dr. Serraiocco says. “There will be thousands of patients in the Bay Area alone suffering just like Yevgeny.”
Dr. Serraiocco, who is part of Palo Alto Medical Foundation in the Bay Area, is board-certified in both internal medicine and integrative medicine. This dual certification gives her a unique approach that leverages Western medicine as well as natural medicine practices to inform her treatment modalities.
Yevgeny first met Dr. Serraiocco in March when a persistent cold and cough caused him to visit a PAMF respiratory care clinic. He tested negative for COVID-19 but endured many tests from a variety of different doctors who could not diagnose any problems.
“Dr. Serraiocco was the first doctor who knew exactly what was going on,” Yevgeny said.
So, when Yevgeny started having post-COVID symptoms, he asked to see her again.
“Her integrative and internal medicine experience seemed to give her a broader base to help me,” he said.
Yevgeny recognizes some signs of anxiety as he deals with long-hauler symptoms as well, but he knows his case is not isolated. He read on online groups of others who had similar symptoms, and learned his older sister living in Europe had long-hauler symptoms long after her own COVID-19 battle.
“I feel better knowing that her symptoms eventually went away,” Yevgeny says. “I haven’t had any symptom-free days yet, but I try to stay optimistic that these issues are temporary.”
As data is compiled on post-COVID syndrome, the shared electronic health record at Sutter Health should help physicians track a large pool of patients. This is just the kind of interdisciplinary work that Yevgeny hopes will increase in pace, if not to help him, at least to help others in his predicament.
Dr. Serraiocco has witnessed the resiliency with which her patients have coped during a pandemic, and she continues to arm patients with tools that provide them with a little empowerment, hope and positive thinking. She has a YouTube channel that provides practical lifestyle tips toward better health, and recently produced a YouTube video on “How to Manage COVID-19 Symptoms at Home” and has also posted webinars on boosting your immunity.