A Little-Known Side Effect of COVID-19

The time will come when diligent research over long periods will bring to light things which now lie hidden. A single lifetime, even though entirely devoted to the sky, would not be enough for the investigation of so vast a subject… And so this knowledge will be unfolded only through long successive ages. There will come a time when our descendants will be amazed that we did not know things that are so plain to them… Many discoveries are reserved for ages still to come, when memory of us will have been effaced.
― Seneca, Natural Questions

[names have been changed]

Early in the fall, my husband came home and said that one of the ladies that he works with needed a tutor for her child, who had been in an accident and needed help with relearning things due to brain damage. Being that I hadn’t really worked with any students at school and was missing them, I said that I could help.

I spoke to Alice’s mom and was told her story. It is one that you probably haven’t heard about, or thought about, but I am in no doubt has happened to many adults with disabilities during the pandemic.

Alice, like many people, has multiple medical conditions. She has Addison’s Disease and Epilepsy, and something happened last spring to cause a grand-mal seizure. This seizure led to the ambulance being called, no surprise there, but the story now takes a twist.

As part of the seizure, or concurrent with it, Alice was also having an Addisonian Crisis. The ambulance drivers, stressed out due to overwork and the global pandemic, did not listen effectively to Alice’s mom, who I am sure was also very stressed at the moment. Alice usually goes to a hospital in Taylor, the closest major hospital to our area, but due to the pandemic, all hospitals had networked and routed patients to different places based on their medical needs. Alice was taken to St David’s in downtown Austin. Alice, it is important to note, is a 20-year old adult. The ambulance would not let her mom ride with her due to COVID. When Alice arrived at the hospital, no one knew her and the doctor familiar with her medical history was over 30 miles away at another hospital. The attending physician did not recognize her symptoms as Addison-related, and did not treat her as such. Her mom was not allowed into the hospital because of COVID, and the hospital would not release any information because Alice is an adult. Days later, her mom was finally able to get information, and found out that her daughter had had a heart attack and went without oxygen for 10 minutes before she was revived. At that time, she was in a coma, and remained in one for three months.

Before this accident, or incident, use whatever label seems appropriate, Alice was working at a sandwich shop and Walmart. She was taking two or three classes at Austin Community College. She couldn’t drive because of her epilepsy, but other than that, her life was completely normal.

In about an hour, her life became the opposite of normal. After she was released from the hospital, she could no longer walk unassisted. She had no short-term memory. Her speech was different: no longer the voice of a normal 20-year old person, she spoke in a monotone. She could not swallow liquid without risking aspiration, and could not eat solid food.

Now, a year after her accident occurred, she can walk on her own, and she has me and two other therapists who work with her on her memory and mobility. She is back to reading books and texting on her phone. She loves to watch Disney movies all day long. We are working on speech and her voice: trying to get her to control her voice more than she has been. She works very hard and keeps a daily diary now and makes marked improvements every week, although they are small and might not be obvious to someone who didn’t know her. Alice lives with her grandmother, her uncle and her brother, Andrew. Her mom lives across town with her husband, and her sister goes to college full-time at a nearby university.

When I think about Alice and her experience of the last year, I am mystified about how I didn’t think about this side effect of COVID: that people could receive such poor care that they die, or end up permanently (or at least in the long term) impacted by medical mistakes caused by the stress of the pandemic. The stress is systemic, and I suspect we haven’t really begun to understand what it has done to us individually and societally. I am sure, I am positive, that there are other people just like Alice out there; people who bore the brunt of a pandemic despite never actually having the disease.

COVID has broken-down, destroyed and distorted so many aspects of life. I sit here in a classroom, typing this story, and it is mid-April. The last time I had normal classes was over a year ago. The next time I have normal classes will be: no one knows. I asked Alice the other day if she intends to go back to ACC and she said yes. After all, there is nothing missing out of her amazing brain; it just takes a lot longer to pull the information out of it.

As with all things, the only guarantee is that things will change. Alice will continue to improve slowly. Sometimes I dream about going to her house and seeing her walking around, saying hello, and hearing her speak in a normal voice and tell me all about her day. Right now she is still talking in her funny monotone which is broken up with laughter, especially when we do voice exercises which make her make the funniest sounds.

Years from now, when we reflect on these times, I wonder what we will remember and what we will forget. What will be significant to us, and what will fade away?

Memory’s truth, because memory has its own special kind. It selects, eliminates, alters, exaggerates, minimizes, glorifies, and vilifies also; but in the end it creates its own reality, its heterogeneous but usually coherent version of events; and no sane human being ever trusts someone else’s version more than his own.”
― Salman Rushdie

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