Rachelle Eaton, 52, of Ravenna, said she has experienced silent hypoxia, a novel condition characterized by an abnormally low blood oxygen level without the shortness of breath or other indicators typically associated with such levels. Michael Indriolo/The Portager
In-person events have resumed and mask mandates have eased up, yet for some, Covid-19’s morbid arms still hold fast, tearing them away from the privilege of normalcy many now enjoy.
Rachelle Eaton, 52, of Ravenna, affixed a translucent tube to her nose as she sat next to her husband, Steven Lapcevic, on their living room couch. Her oxygen machine’s rhythmic pulsing filled the room as she clutched his hand. She felt better than she normally does today, she said.
Some days, Eaton struggles to get out of bed, she said, stunted by permanent lung damage and paralyzing fatigue. She falls into a category of roughly 10% to 30% of Covid-19 survivors known as Long Haulers, those who experience a myriad of long-term, debilitating complications after recovering from acute Covid-19.
“It has changed everything,” she said. “This very active woman who loved her home and her children and living is just sort of — this is it.”
According to the CDC, nearly 20 commonly reported complications ranging from recurring fevers to difficulty thinking or concentrating can strike even after relatively mild cases of acute Covid-19. Some of those who’ve suffered through more severe bouts of Covid-19, however, have reported autoimmune conditions, in which the immune system mistakenly attacks healthy cells, and “multiorgan effects” to vital organs like the heart and brain. Yet medical professionals, the CDC included, still haven’t concisely defined Long Haul Covid-19.
“When I was in acute Covid, I said, ‘I feel like it’s changing my DNA,’” Eaton said. “I felt like it was recoding my body, and it was the strangest feeling. … When that started, I’ve never been the same since.”
Eaton contracted acute Covid-19 in early January, landing briefly in the UH Portage emergency room after developing pneumonia. She felt like she had a sinus infection when she went to bed on Jan. 12, but by the time she woke up the next morning, she said she felt the virus restricting her lungs. She got tested that day.
“When I had gone to UH urgent care to get the test, I really believe that this nurse practitioner saved my life,” she said. “Before my test results came back, she started me on steroids, and I believe that’s what stopped it from, you know, ultimately killing me.”
Yet even with pneumonia, she could not stay at the hospital very long. Because its Covid-19 facility was so packed, UH Portage was only hospitalizing Covid-19 patients whose blood oxygen levels remained around 70%, Eaton said. Hers bounced around 80% and 90%. (Healthy saturation falls between 95% and 100%.)
“The acute Covid resolved itself, but I was still so sick,” she said. “I tried to go back to work for like four hours a day. I would maybe be able to do that for two days, and then I was just down for another week.”
That was after about a month of acute Covid-19. But during those weeks following her recovery, she experienced silent hypoxia, a novel condition characterized by an abnormally low blood oxygen level without the shortness of breath or other indicators typically associated with such levels. Eaton’s sometimes dipped into the 80s without her even realizing it, she said. Left unchecked, silent hypoxia can “irreparably damage vital organs,” according to a Boston University study.
Those weeks became months. Then came the brain fog, a neurological side effect common among Long Haulers that appears as cognitive impairment.
“I knew that [brain fog] was really bad when I hadn’t remembered that we had Easter,” she said. “I was thinking about, even though my children are adults, I was gonna get them an Easter basket. But here Easter had been the week before. And I didn’t remember. It was like it didn’t happen.”
Eaton has also continually dealt with incapacitating fatigue and headaches along with chest pain and shortness of breath. Every day feels different, she said. While she feels relatively alright some days, she and Lapcevic, her husband, spend other days mulling over whether or not to go to the emergency room.
Like many Long Haulers, her symptoms come and go in what she described as a “series of hills.” But even on her good days, she still can’t take walks outside, clean her house, or complete many basic tasks she used to without a second thought, she said.
“The hardest part is like not knowing,” she said. “Not knowing if this is going to be a six-month ordeal, or if this is just — now the lung damage will never go away. It’s permanent. But will the fatigue ever resolve? The sheer exhaustion? … Outside, it’s almost like my body can’t handle it. I walked outside, was it Sunday, and I almost collapsed. I was just out in our yard, and I almost collapsed just walking up the steps to come back in the house.”
As her day-in-day-out battle with Covid-19 has intensified, Eaton said she has lamented the politicization of the virus in America. She views masking as doing her part to keep her neighbors, and even passing strangers, safe, she said.
As far as the vaccine, Eaton said she believes everyone has the right to make their own choice.
“I encourage everyone to get the vaccine, of course,” she said. “I think that it could not just save your life, but it could potentially stop this from happening to them.”
As the acute Covid-19 took hold of her in early January, Eaton said she thought back to the prior week, when a largely maskless mob descended on the capitol. She reflected on how many of those protesters could die, not from violence, she said, but from Covid-19.
“Covid couldn’t have come at a worse time in this country because it became a political issue,” she said. “When all you were asked was to wear a mask, it became political. That changed my perspective of, well, what does it mean to be American?”