You live with brain fog, short term memory loss, ringing in the ears, dizziness, shortness of breath, anxiety and depression. Some days are good; some days you feel drained at 11:00 or 12:00, then another day you wake up so tired you don’t even want to get out of bed. All of this is happening amid pressure from managers who may feel frustrated with the delayed recovery of workers. These are some of the experiences of University of Cape Town (UCT) staff suffering from long COVID. Relief, information and sharing came in the form of the UCT Long COVID Support Group, another weekly online gathering that offers the chance to get help from experts.
Blanche Claasen-Hoskins, UCT’s head of staff welfare, appointments, benefits and healthcare, said the group was formed under the leadership of UCT’s chief operating officer, Dr. Reno Morar, as a number of employees were struggling with lengthy COVID symptoms and struggling to be productive.
She said various experts — such as occupational therapists, pulmonologists and psychologists — are invited to the group to share useful information with people living with long COVID.
Dr Tony Davidson, Organizational Health Consultant (OrgHealth) to UCT, who is involved in the organization of the group and its functions, said his main objective was to provide support to participants who attend.
“Some participants felt uncomfortable at work, where the demands exceeded their ability to deliver.”
“Part of the support was clinical with health professionals, psychosocial support with therapists and pragmatic support on how to cope with activities of daily living with a physio and an occupational therapist. The most important support was probably the support that the participants gave to each other – the advice given was based on experience. As many experiences had similar themes, people felt less alone and isolated. This reduced the sense of isolation they felt. Some participants felt uncomfortable at work, where the demands exceeded their ability to deliver. OrgHealth provided guidance on how people could approach their supervisor, and if the employee deemed it appropriate, we would discuss the long COVID and its impacts with their supervisor and create solutions,” Dr. Davidson said. .
Anxiety long-term effects
Carmencita Kerchhoff, Residence Coordinator at UCT, is one such staff member who had the misfortune of contracting COVID-19 in a first wave and is living with long COVID symptoms.
“I contracted COVID in December 2020. My whole family had COVID. We lost my mother-in-law and I almost lost my husband and my mother. I cared for them during this time when I myself was sick with COVID…I have no memory of those days and was on autopilot to care for my loved ones. I vaguely and anxiously remember my emotions during this time. Death and fear were constant companions and it was only my faith that kept me both sane and hopeful,” Kerchhoff said.
She now lives with systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) and continues to participate in the Long COVID Support Group, believing it has been an invaluable source of information, care and non-judgmental support.
“Before COVID, I was a healthy, non-smoker, alcohol-free runner with no pre-existing medical conditions. After COVID, my entire physical and mental health changed dramatically. I now have a permanent medical condition: SLE high risk, and my forms of exercise are Pilates and walking my dog. Respectfully, hearing about other people in similar or sometimes even worse situations makes me both thankful and grateful. It made me more determined to treat others and myself with kindness and compassion,” Kerchhoff said.
“Very often mental health issues, depression or anxiety are part of the long-term effects of long COVID.”
The unknown long-term effects are a source of frustration for her, as much as for the managers.
“Having COVID is akin to experiencing trauma. We are just as frustrated and even more anxious about our delayed recovery as the managers. Be kind, show compassion and be patient as we work towards our recovery and well-being,” she added.
David Coetzee, associate professor emeritus in UCT’s Division of Public Health Medicine, who is also involved in the group’s work, said it’s unclear how permanent the effects of long COVID will be.
“Very often mental health issues, depression or anxiety are part of the long-term effects of long COVID, but also brain fog and difficulty thinking or concentrating, headaches, problems sleeping, dizziness when standing, the feeling of pins and needles, loss of smell, or taste, joint or muscle pain,” he said.
A safe space to ventilate
Jolene Steenkamp, events coordinator at UCT and member of the group, said she contracted COVID-19 in August 2021, possibly when she took off her mask to eat during a meeting of family before the funeral.
“The day after coming out of solitary confinement, my brother-in-law died of COVID-19 and I witnessed it. I kind of feel like this trauma impacted my recovery as well. I always have trouble concentrating and multi-tasking. In my work environment, I take notes and set reminders because I tend to forget things. I also record our meetings so I can go back and listen to it if needed. I see my doctors regularly, but since it’s so new, there’s not much they can do. I take antidepressants and have also started counseling to deal with anxiety and depression,” Steenkamp said.
“It also gives us the opportunity to reflect, express ourselves and talk about how we feel, which we don’t usually do in our own departments and faculties.”
The group provided him with information and coping mechanisms.
“It also gives us the opportunity to reflect, express ourselves and talk about how we feel, which we don’t usually do in our own departments and faculties. Staff members are also supported to discuss with line managers the importance of self-care and slowing down to recover,” Steenkamp said.
Kareema Poggenpoel, an administrative assistant at UCT and a member of the group, said she deals with symptoms by dealing with them as they arise, having a positive attitude and adopting a well-balanced lifestyle. She contracted COVID-19 in August 2020, as she lost many family members to the virus: her father, mother and brother-in-law.
“It was during [my brother-in-law’s] beer (Islamic funeral prayer) that I started to feel bad and immediately went home to self-isolate. My sense of taste and smell disappeared quickly and I was tested the next day, with a positive result. Mom passed away in hospital on August 13, 2020, during my period of isolation. I cannot find words to describe this period of my life. To lose three loved ones so suddenly and in such a short time was and still is heartbreaking, to say the least,” she said.
She is now dealing with symptoms that only occasionally recur and getting mental support from the group.
“I found myself in a group of people who understood my challenges – both physical and emotional, who could relate to me, and I could relate to them. The group made me feel heard, m gave a safe space outside of my family unit to debrief and be vulnerable in a safe space. The group is an encouragement to all members and a testament to Blanche’s ability to create a calm and emotionally safe environment within ‘a band that started out as strangers.
Staff can contact Claasen-Hoskins via email to join the group.