A LeRoy family is pushing back against the narrative that young people don't have much to worry about with COVID-19.
Sarah Welander, 20, was a healthy, vibrant college student before she contracted the coronavirus. Now, she's suffering from a stutter, significant short-term memory and cognitive issues likely caused by a ministroke related to the virus.
Welander’s been ill for just over a month. She was screened for COVID-19 after experiencing severe joint and muscle pain, a headache, sore throat, fatigue, nausea, vomiting, and a fever.
That initial test came back negative, but because she was experiencing so many COVID symptoms, OSF HealthCare pandemic health workers asked that she quarantine. Sarah’s mother, Patti Welander, said within days, she was getting worse.
Sarah tested positive for influenza. For a while, Patti said, they thought that could be causing her symptoms.
“She didn't seem to be getting better at all and, in fact, made a few trips to the emergency room--one time because the pain in her muscles and joints were so severe and another time because she felt like her chest was squeezing,” said Patti Welander. “She started having problems with her speech where she wasn't able to say what words she wanted.”
Sarah tested positive for COVID-19 while she was in the hospital. Patti Welander said doctors couldn’t prove or disprove whether she had a stroke, but they believe the persisting neuro deficits are likely from the novel coronavirus.
Sarah isn’t experiencing any respiratory symptoms or the loss of taste and smell often associated with COVID-19. But on top of the stutter, she is having so-called brain fog, as well as head and body aches and stomach pain.
Medical care has been hard to coordinate during the pandemic. The Welanders didn’t want to bring Sarah into a medical environment and potentially expose other patients, if her symptoms weren’t life-or-death. On top of that, many physicians couldn’t see them for more than a month out. They have appointments scheduled throughout November with the Mayo Clinic and OSF neurologists.
Sarah Welander said doctors initially told her they probably won’t ever really know what happened—and that makes it hard to treat her condition.
“It's been pretty stressful because we don't really know how long it's going to last," she said. "It’s really hard academically, because I am in college and starting to get behind in my work … because I can only function brain-wise for like an hour and a half on a good day before I need to just lay down.”
Her mom said the challenges in coordinating medical care for her daughter have been some of the most difficult parts of the experience.
“It's been fairly frustrating not having answers, or not being able to access medical care when she's needed it,” she said. “I feel like at times, she hasn't been taken seriously because of her age. It's also been hard because we've had to leave her unable to communicate because of the COVID situation. A few of the times my husband has taken her to the ER, he hasn't been able to accompany her to make sure that we understand what's going on with her as well.”
As a parent, she added, it’s really hard to see your kid in pain and not be able to do anything about it.
The Welanders have been cautious about the coronavirus. The whole family uses masks. They wash their hands. They only go to work, school, the pharmacy and the grocery store.
They suspect Sarah could have come in contact with the virus at her job at a fast food restaurant in LeRoy. The Welanders said the city of LeRoy has been lenient on enforcing mask rules on such businesses.
Despite her complications, Sarah Welander isn’t resentful—just concerned.
“I'm not blaming people for giving it to me, but I feel like part of the issue is when I have to go somewhere like school, or to the doctor's office, the people that are there previously might not have been taking it seriously—and that puts the other people at risk,” she said. “It's just really hard because I can't control what other people are doing. And it's kind of frustrating because I've been doing everything I can to keep people safe.”
She said that’s especially true when dealing with service workers. She stressed you never know when someone has a pre-existing condition that could make them high-risk for COVID-19 complications. Plus, she said, many are putting themselves at risk to do those jobs simply because they need the money.
“If we can do it (wear a mask) for our six-hour shift, you can do it for the 10 minutes you're there,” said Welander, who remains optimistic about her future. She’s currently studying at Parkland Communtiy College and wants to pursue a career in education.
“It's caused a little bit of anxiety for me, because I'm in school to be a special ed teacher,” she said. “If I have a stutter ... for the rest of my life, and I have these neurological issues where I can't use words and stuff, how am I gonna be a teacher? But I have the support from some of my high school teachers, and my family and friends, who are supporting me and saying, 'You can go to speech therapy, you can still do it—you just might have to work a little harder to do it.'”
Patti Welander said it’s hard to see COVID-19 politicized on social media, and frustrating to see people not taking it seriously.
“You may be cavalier about your own health, but you're affecting the people around you as well. And the statistics may be that only 2% or 3% of the people die,” she said. “But we aren't looking at what happens to people long term like Sarah, who may have a lifetime of disability because she contracted an illness.”
Welander also noted the public still doesn't know a lot about the virus, and encourages anyone with symptoms they’re worried about—even if they’re not typical COVID symptoms—to get tested.
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