Trouble breathing, tooth loss: Some COVID-19 patients face lasting effects

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GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — For some who survive COVID-19, beating the virus doesn’t mean the end of the fight. Symptoms such as headaches, fatigue and feeling foggy can linger for months.

“This is not something that only patients with underlying lung disease or heart disease (are dealing with). This is being reported in young, healthy people,” said Dr. Claudia Jarrin, the medical director of infection prevention and control for Mercy Health Muskegon in Michigan.

The people who deal with severe symptoms in the months after getting COVID-19 are called long-haulers. Only a fraction of patients are affected, and Jarrin said the symptoms and their longevity varies from person to person.

“When I breathe deeply, I still have a heaviness in my upper chest and I still get fatigued with strenuous activity. It’s getting better every day but it is going to take time,” said Dan George, a long-hauler from Cedar Springs.

George said he began to feel tired the last week of October. He was tested for COVID-19 a few days later and the results came back positive.

“My symptoms steadily got worse. The main symptoms were fatigue and low blood oxygen level,” George said.

George said he was admitted to the hospital after his temperature reached 105 degrees. He was released after 10 days but then spent more than seven weeks on oxygen while recovering at home.

“I’ve always been pretty active: an athlete and coach, do a lot of hunting out West. To have to be toting around an oxygen line, that was a little limiting,” George said.

For others, the journey back to health has been even longer.

“They gave me less than 15% chance to live,” said Kim Oakes of Grand Rapids. “They told my daughter and my son to start my funeral arrangements.”

She contracted COVID-19 last spring. She was admitted into the hospital in May and stayed through the first week of June. She said she doesn’t remember much from that time because she was sedated and spent several weeks intubated. 

A courtesy photo of Kim Oakes in May or June 2020, while she was hospitalized, sedated and intubated as she fought COVID-19.

Oakes said she still has trouble breathing and standing but almost more troubling was the loss of her hair and teeth. She blames some of the medications she was given.

“My teeth went bad, and I had to have 17 teeth pulled all at once,” she said. “I had to get dentures because my teeth were gone. My hair started falling out rapidly. I don’t really have a whole lot left.”

Media outlets like The New York Times have reported tooth loss in other COVID-19 survivors, but doctors are still working to learn if the two are connected.

Even with the lasting challenges, Oakes said she knows it could have been worse.

“I’m more grateful to be here and I understand that a lot of people didn’t make it,” she said.

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