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COVID 1 Year Later: Checking In With A COVID Long Hauler

Courtesy Patti Welander
Sarah Welander, 20, of Leroy contracted COVID-19 last fall. Nearly six months later, she's still suffering from cognitive side effects from the virus.

This story is part of a special episode of Sound Ideas airing March 12, marking the one-year anniversary of COVID's arrival in McLean County. Find more stories in the series.

A growing number of COVID-19 survivors are disproving the narrative that it's a two-week illness. So-called COVID long haulers experience symptoms months after they contract the novel coronavirus.

Sarah Welander, 20, of LeRoy tested positive for COVID last October. She long suffered from a stutter and cognitive issues that doctors think were likely caused by a ministroke. Welander’s stutter has mostly cleared, but other challenges persist.

“I guess my biggest struggle right now is thinking—which is, I mean, that's a weird thing to say,” Welander said. “I'm still dealing heavily with the COVID fog I'm in. So I haven't been able to return to college and take classes because I'm not able to read and process information.”

Welander attended Parkland Community College before she got ill. But short-term memory impairment put her studies on pause. She can’t remember anything that happened longer than three days ago. She can’t remember what she got for Christmas, or even what she did last weekend. Her long-term memory is intact up until her COVID diagnosis last fall.

There’s another side effect: dealing with the long-term effects of the virus is mentally and emotionally taxing.

“I guess it has slightly negatively impacted my mental health. I do have less motivation to talk with my friends or do anything outside of the house—even going for a walk or something that’s still completely COVID safe,” Welander said. “My mentality is like, ‘I'm not gonna remember it, so what's the point of doing it?’”

When Welander first spoke to WGLT in November, her calendar was stacked with doctor’s appointments trying to get to the bottom of what happened. Sarah’s mother, Patti Welander, explained that at the time, there weren’t a ton of cases where COVID had lasting implications—especially in patients as young as Sarah. Now, researchers estimate about 10% of those who contract the virus become long haulers.

“We know it was caused by COVID, maybe the exact mechanism we don't know. But we also don't know how long, nobody can predict how long it will last. They just say, ‘Hopefully she'll get better,’” Patti Welander said. “So I think that's some of her frustration, as well, is just not knowing this is going to get better and what timeframe that might be.”

Sarah’s medical appointments have slowed. She gets acupuncture once a week to help with headaches she’s been getting post-COVID. She’s also seeing a psychologist for educational testing to identify where her neurological deficits lie and craft a special plan for when she returns to college. The rest is a waiting game.

Her mother said what has helped make the experience more bearable for their family is the constant support from family, friends and the community.

“I have friends who have made it their mission to do research for me as a way to contribute to this process,” she said. “We found actually, through news articles, people all over the country who have similar symptoms. I've been able to connect with some of them and talk to them about their experiences and what they've done.”

In other ways, Patti Welander said, she’s had to resign to the fact that others may not take the pandemic or health guidance seriously.

“I guess at some point, I stopped trying to educate other people,” she said. “At the beginning, it was really important to me to do that. But I think there has been enough to educate people now. If they refuse to take the vaccine, or if they refuse to wear a mask, I just have sort of given up with being frustrated with that.”

Sarah Welander said the arrival and increasing availability of COVID vaccines is somewhat of a light at the end of the tunnel. But like her mother, she acknowledges that not everyone will be on board—and she’s alright with that.

“I feel like people really should get it. But honestly, it's not something you can force people to get, unfortunately,” Welander said. “I'm excited for things to go back. I know there has been a drop in COVID cases—whether that's due to the vaccine or whether that's just due to other outside factors. But I'm starting to get hope that it'll get cleared up a lot faster, because I thought this was going to be going on for another six-plus months.”

Sarah Welander said she’s most looking forward to going back to work, whether at her fast food position or something new.

“I guess I'm also looking forward to just feeling back to my old self and being able to do the same things I used to be able to do—like being able to just read something and understand it, and being able to remember something for a week,” she said. “I guess I took things like that for granted when I wasn't sick.”

Patti Welander also is cautiously optimistic. She picked the destination for their next family vacation, but hasn’t booked anything yet. Welander said it could still be a long, long time before she feels comfortable doing that. There are still a lot of unknowns.

“Its effect is still bigger than we know and understand,” she said. “People who had COVID and recovered are now experiencing later effects as well. I guess if there was something for people to understand it's, you know, just to be just to be nicer and kinder to people. There are a lot of people who've really been affected by this.”

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Dana Vollmer is a reporter with WGLT. Dana previously covered the state Capitol for NPR Illinois and Peoria for WCBU.