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Thoughts from a COVID-19 ‘long-hauler’

| Thursday, September 16, 2021

As I wrote about in one of my columns from last semester, I tested positive for COVID-19 in March of 2021. In that column, I described what a month with no sense of smell or taste — as a result of the virus — was like and how it was changing my experience of food and even of daily life itself. Almost exactly six months later, I still have yet to gain back my smell and taste.

The first two months post-COVID-19 left me with absolutely zero ability to smell and taste my food — leaving me with a quite dampened existence in which my food preferences were based solely on texture and “smushiness” rather than taste and pleasure. This condition of a complete loss of smell and taste is called “anosmia.” This anosmia transformed, around the middle of May, into something else which I later discovered is called “parosmia.” Parosmia is basically a distorted, rather than completely lost, sense of smell (and taste). So, rather than not being able to smell the fresh coffee wafting from the Starbucks in LaFun, my nose would instead become filled with this disgusting, almost gasoline-like scent which would make my stomach churn, my head spin and cause a feeling of intense nausea to overcome me. Stepping into the dining halls went from being something that used to make me sad in the first two and a half months post-COVID-19 (because I couldn’t enjoy food — just texture) to something that would literally make me feel ill due to the myriad of smells coming from food which I knew was, in reality, delicious but that my “post-COVID brain” distorted into a nauseating experience.

Eating with a distorted sense of taste was somehow an even worse experience than smelling with a distorted sense of smell. Some of my favorite foods — chicken, steak, ice cream, fish, pasta — became inedible. I don’t even know how to describe what this was like, but I’ll try: Imagine you ordered a cheeseburger (or whatever your favorite food is) from your favorite restaurant. You’re all excited in anticipation for the familiar and delicious taste that you’ve experienced so many times. Your food comes, and you take a bite. But, instead of that familiar and delicious cheesy and savory taste, you feel like you’re tasting cigarette smoke, garbage and rotten food.

That’s what parosmia is like. You know what food is supposed to taste and smell like, but all you get instead is this revolting, rotten, nauseating flavor. Obviously, my relationship with food took a turn for the worse.

So, not fun at all.

And it isn’t just parosmia which I’ve experienced over these past few months but also the other symptoms of what people are calling “long-haul COVID.” These long-haul symptoms last months after recovering from initial infection and include fatigue, shortness of breath and anosmia and/or parosmia. But it gets even stranger, more difficult and more draining: Long-haul COVID also can cause brain fog, problems with memory, increased difficulties with anxiety and gastrointestinal issues like GERD (gastroesophageal acid reflux). Having experienced and currently dealing with most, if not all, of these, I can say that long-haul COVID is not something I would wish upon anyone.

As I tried to emphasize as much as possible in my column from last semester about my experiences with COVID-19, I really don’t want to and don’t mean to complain. I realize that I’m lucky considering the millions of people who have died from COVID-19 in the past two years and the millions who have lost loved ones. I also am starting to see improvement little by little: My smell and taste isn’t back to normal yet, but I’m getting better at finding food and meals that I can tolerate, I’m finding ways to better deal with the stomach issues and anxiety and I’m able to keep up with schoolwork and other commitments despite the occasional brain fog and problems with my memory. I’m also incredibly lucky to be here at Notre Dame, where life (thanks to the vaccine rate) feels almost normal and where I’m surrounded by supportive people and friends. But, that doesn’t take away from how much of an impact and how much difficulty long-haul COVID has brought to my life and the lives of so many others.

Long-haul COVID should be talked about more — especially since as many as one in four people experience it. Maybe this would help change the minds of those who say, “I don’t care about COVID because I’m young/healthy and won’t die from it.” While that’s true in most cases, I don’t think these same people would want to have their relationships with food ruined, to deal with the brain fog and anxiety or the dozens of other symptoms that could happen if they, like I, become “long-haulers.”

 

Megumi Tamura is a sophomore from New Jersey currently living in McGlinn Hall. She enjoys reading books, going to museums and eating Jersey bagels. She can be reached at [email protected] or @megtamura on Twitter.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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