The migraines came first.
Two or three weeks after she recovered from covid-19 in August, Jennifer Gorzock said she started experiencing the intense headaches, along with fatigue and disorienting mental fog. She noted her experience with the covid illness itself was relatively mild. She needed medications to get through it but was not hospitalized.
The symptoms have persisted for the past eight months. More have piled on: hair loss, persistent loss of taste and smell, shortness of breath and an elevated heart rate, even with minimal exertion. Gorzock was a healthy, energetic 40-year-old nurse and mother. Now, she’s on six medications, can’t return to work and can’t be as active in taking care of her two children, one of whom has special needs and requires “a great deal of care,” she said.
“It’s hard being limited,” said Gorzock, who lives in Big Beaver, Beaver County. “It seemed like one symptom arose from another, and it kind of makes it hard because it’s a new normal for me.”
Gorzock soon will be a patient of Allegheny Health Network’s new clinic dedicated to patients experiencing the longer-term effects of covid-19 — what many experts have dubbed “long-hauler symptoms.”
The AHN Post Covid-19 Recovery Clinic, based out of the Breathing Disorders Center at the AHN Wexford Health + Wellness Pavilion, is being led by the network’s pulmonary and critical care division. A range of specialists — in pulmonology, cardiology, integrative medicine, neurology, psychology — are working in the clinic to address long-term effects associated with covid-19. Gorzock learned about the clinic through the cardiologist she began seeing, Dr. Indu Poornima.
“Across the country, physicians are witnessing an increasing number of patients who have recovered from covid-19 yet continue to deal with a myriad of issues from pulmonary, heart and vascular problems to chronic fatigue, headaches and post-traumatic stress disorder,” said Dr. Tariq Cheema, division director of pulmonary, critical care, sleep and allergy at AHN and lead physician at the clinic. “The ramifications of the pandemic will continue to be seen in this new patient population, and we’re looking forward to helping these individuals diagnose their symptoms, navigate their treatment path and ease some of their concerns.”
A February study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that around 30% of 177 people with mild covid-19 cases reported persistent symptoms up to nine months after the original illness — 43.3% for patients older than 65. The study estimates as many as 8.4 million people fall into the long-hauler category.
“I want others to know there are others out there like myself,” said Gorzock. “This is a real illness, but with no known cure. With this clinic, I am hoping that long-haulers like myself can get the help and answers that we need to get back to our normal, everyday life.”
Long-hauler symptoms are varied. Patients have reported respiratory difficulties, brain fog, anxiety and depression, severe body aches and many more ailments.
“A lot of it relates to inflammatory response,” said Dr. Meilin Young, a pulmonologist working with the clinic.
She said physicians have noticed many of the inflammatory markers normally elevated during infection or other times of stress are even more elevated during covid-19.
“And at that point, it’s almost like you’re running on fumes for a very long time, and covid does that to you,” Young said. “You’re essentially on an adrenaline rush for days and days on end, and suddenly, it backs away and your body is burnt out.”
Young said the idea for the AHN Post Covid-19 Recovery Clinic originated after practitioners working independently throughout the network found they were dealing with a lot more long-hauler patients than anticipated. Discussions began in the fall and winter to arrange a more collaborative, multi-disciplinary approach.
At this point, Young said, the specialists do not have a set number of patients they are expecting or will accept at the clinic.
“We are prepared to see pretty much anyone and everyone who do fit the long-hauler-type picture,” Young said.
The AHN Research Institute also will be engaged to assess and analyze data collected from patient reports and outcomes.
Teghan Simonton is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Teghan at 724-226-4680, email@example.com or via Twitter .