DENVER (KDVR) — A healthy endurance athlete and thriving college student, Harper Powell’s life was drastically changed by COVID-19 nearly a year ago.
“It’s been scary at times and it’s been frustrating, kind of everything,” said Powell.
The now 22-year-old was studying abroad in early 2020. She became sick in February, just as coronavirus was making headlines across the world.
“I didn’t have a super severe infection but it was unusual for me. It started off with a really tight chest. I felt like I couldn’t take a deep breath. Then I started coughing and had some other symptoms over the next couple of weeks,” said Powell.
Powell never tested for COVID-19 as testing supplies were not widely available at the time. After the pandemic forced her to return home, her symptoms improved but only temporarily. To this day, most of her symptoms are lingering to some degree.
“A lot of strange inflammatory symptoms here and there with the most consistent being headaches, fatigue, eczema and then the chest tightness has also stayed on,” said Powell.
Powell competed as an endurance athlete, racing mountain bikes in national competitions. She says her symptoms prevented her from taking part in basic exercise.
Like other ‘long-haul’ patients in Colorado, Powell sought treatment at UCHealth’s Post-COVID clinic.
“This is a real phenomenon but we’re still trying to understand exactly who it happens to and why it happens to particular patients,” said Dr. Sarah Jolley, director of the clinic.
Jolley says they often see long-term symptoms in young patients who were in good health before COVID-19. Symptoms typically include exercise intolerance, fatigue, shortness of breath and persistent cough. Neurologic symptoms like ‘brain fog’ and confusion are also common.
“I think that’s what’s so different about this syndrome is it seems not to affect just one organ system. It really seems to affect organs systems in different ways in different patients,” said Jolley.
Jolley says there’s ongoing research at UCHealth to try to understand risk factors for long-term symptoms.
“There are also ongoing studies looking at the immunoresponse to understand if there’s differences in immunity that dictate these symptoms, but a lot of that is happening right now,” said Jolley.
As Powell’s symptoms approach the one year mark, she remains optimistic that she’ll fully recover.
“I really think it’s a matter of time and just caring for my body and learning to be patient,” said Powell.