Some COVID-19 survivors face a long, slow road to recovery

The bad cough and the fever are gone.

Still, two months after his COVID-19 diagnosis, and a month after his discharge from the hospital, Trevor Conkey feels like he cannot seem to shake this novel coronavirus.

"You may wake up one day and feel 100%,” Conkey says, “And, you make up one day and it just hurts to move."

He never quite knows what to expect.

And no one, Conkey says, can tell him why he is still struggling, or when he will start to feel better.

Conkey was driving for Uber, transporting passengers to and from the Atlanta airport, when he came down with what he thought was bronchitis.

Then, Conkey spiked a fever.

The 54-year-old spent 17 days on a mechanical ventilator in Piedmont Newnan Hospital's intensive care unit, and a month in the hospital.

But almost 5 weeks after his discharge, he is still having all kinds of lingering issues, Conkey says.

"I've got shooting (pain) on the outside of my leg, almost like inflamed nerve endings,” he says.  “So, sometimes it will be very painful.  (I have) Joint pain, headaches. I have tremors in my hands and feet."

Dr. Maria Sundaram, a postdoctoral fellow and epidemiologist, who specializes in respiratory viruses at Emory's Rollins School of Public Health, says the medical community is still trying to understand why some COVID-19 survivors are struggling with lingering problems while others seem to recover quickly.

Most people with mild infections recover in about two weeks. 

Those with more severe disease may need 4 to 6 weeks to start feeling better.

“We’ve been seeing smaller numbers of people who do have really prolonged illness,” Sundaram says.  “People can test positive days, maybe even months later, sometimes.”

It is sometimes hard to predict, she says, who will struggle with long-term side effects.

Some people, she says, had only mild illness, but develop lingering issues.

"Other people might've had a severe long illness, and they might've been in the ICU,” Sundaram says.  “And, being in the ICU, or being on a ventilator, has its own set of long-term challenges. Being on a ventilator is physically traumatic for your lungs as well.  It might take people a long time to regain their lung function as well."

The virus can damage the lungs, but it can also affect other organs, like the heart, liver and kidneys.

Trevor Conkey is recovering at home, where his wife is keeping a close eye on him.

He recently joined the Survivor Corps Facebook group, a public group with about 57,000 members, designed for COVID-19 survivors. 

"It’s a bunch of us that have either been in the hospital, or have not been in the hospital, but we've come through COVID,” Conkey says.  “And, a lot of them talk about all of the different side effects they're having.  We have people on there still dealing with COVID, asking, ‘Okay, did you all have this and this and this?’"

Sundaram says we are still early into this pandemic, so it is hard to predict how this virus will impact survivors over time.

For now, Trevor Conkey may be considered “recovered,” but, he says, he is a long way from feeling better.