Each morning, Denise Morneau drinks her coffee hoping it will be the day she can taste it. Morneau is what’s become known as a COVID-19 long-hauler.
Valentine’s Day last year, she fell ill and spent three weeks in bed. Sixteen months later, she still can’t smell or taste anything. She also has other lingering, life-altering after effects.
“I have been left now without any sense of taste or smell. And I have this huge pressure behind my eyes, which I feel like somebody is trying to push my eyes out of my head,” said Morneau.
“And I’m an active person: I always have been. I might be 80, but I’m not one of those sit-in-the-chair kind of people. So it has been tough in that direction… It has impacted me greatly. There is no question about that. I just find it extremely, you know, extremely difficult.”
There’s grief because we’ve lost the person that we are.– Denise Morneau
Morneau is seeking help at the COVID-19 Recovery Program run through Windsor’s Hôtel-Dieu Grace Healthcare (HDGH).
The program has pulled in staff from various disciplines, from psychologists to physiotherapists, to help long-haulers cope with their post-COVID reality.
Morneau says the mental supports and group sessions have been a life-saver.
“They have classes. One can be on grief and depression because, you know, through something like this, there’s grief because we’ve lost the person that we are,” said Morneau.
Program for long-haulers needs provincial funding
The recovery program at HDGH is approaching its first anniversary. The hospital’s CEO says it costs in the range of $450,000 a year to run the program. He says it can’t continue long-term without the province putting up some money.
“At this point, the funding for any COVID recovery program in the province of Ontario has been left to the hospitals,” said Bill Marra, CEO of HDGH.
“So we’ve been funding it internally for the first little while. It wasn’t as challenging because we had to shut down a number of our out-patient programs because of COVID. So as we redeployed staff, we were able to pull the resources together… But going forward, it won’t be sustainable.”
Long-haulers anxious for recovery program to continue
More than 150 people with long COVID have been assisted through the HDGH program. Most are COVID survivors like Morneau, who were never treated in hospital.
According to Marra, only 17 per cent of the patients in the recovery program were hospitalized when they fell sick with COVID-19, and just nine percent were in the ICU. They include people like Nabil Alzubaidi and Wayne Martin.
The last few years were especially hard for Alzubaidi. He came to Windsor as a refugee from Palestine six years ago. He worked as a cab driver and was eventually able to bring over his wife and nine children. One year before the pandemic, he lost his wife to cancer. Then in the fall of 2020, he was hospitalized with COVID-19.
“I got in a coma. I didn’t remember nothing about the life here,” said Alzubaidi.
“My lungs stop supplying oxygen to my body. And the doctors think that the oxygen will be less on the brain… And they tried to wake me up. They don’t succeed. Finally, this 26 days, my son speaks with me through the window in the ICU. He said, ‘Dad, how do you come from Palestine? And here, the kids. We need you. I woke up.'”
Alzubaidi spent six months in hospital. He’s been left short of breath and short on energy. He has no sense of taste or smell. And he can no longer work.
Wayne Martin was a longtime employee at Windsor’s minivan plant when he caught the virus last year. Brain fog and breathing issues have made it impossible for him to return to work.
“When I was back to work for a while, I was doing four-hour shifts and they call it sedentary duties. And I was just sitting at a desk and I would come home and sleep for two or three hours just to recover from the four hours of sitting at work,” said Martin.
Martin says the recovery program is a place where he can unload among other long-haulers, rather than over-burdening his family.
“You look forward for that week, that you’re going to go to the support group and you’re going to see those people and and you can feed off them. You can let them know what your issues were. And in turn, you can listen to their their issues for the past two weeks,” said Martin. “And when you live it and someone says, ‘Oh, I can’t breathe or I don’t feel right today. I sit there and go, I know what you feel like because I felt like that three weeks ago.'”
Treat long COVID like any chronic illness: CEO
Marra says the province needs to treat long COVID like any chronic condition and start funding COVID recovery programs.
“We are very, very concerned about individuals who have had COVID, who are not getting the long-term support, because in the end, that could cost the health-care system far more money than it would to fund a program of this nature,” said Marra.
CBC News reached out to the Ministry of Health about whether funding will be granted to the HDGH program. We have yet to hear back.
One day I’m going to get up and that pressure is going to be gone and I’m going to be able to taste and smell.– Denise Morneau
Morneau says she’d be heartbroken if the program were to end. But she also remains optimistic her long COVID will become a thing of the past.
“Every day I’m hoping it’s going to be better and I still believe it will. And so that’s what I’m going with, that one day I’m going to get up in that pressure is going to be gone and I’m going to be able to taste and smell,” said Morneau.
Until then, she’ll lean on her family, and while it’s available to her, the COVID recovery program and the people in it.