W5 investigates how surviving COVID-19 is just the first step
Published Friday, September 25, 2020 10:30AM EDT
VANCOUVER -- Mornings are agony for Mike Chow.
The Port Coquitlam, B.C., dentist, a former marathon runner, now shuffles into the kitchen by moving only a few inches with each step.
He struggles to make a fist when sitting at the table. Like countless other patients who contracted COVID-19, he has no idea how long his symptoms will last or what other health problems may surface.
In the first week of March, Canadians were unaware of the dramatic impact COVID-19 was about to have on their lives. Large public gatherings were still commonplace and Vancouver was hosting a massive international dental conference with more than 15,000 people in attendance. Little did anyone know that the conference would soon be recognized as one of Canada's first COVID-19 super-spreader events.
Chow was among the attendees. A few days after returning home from the conference, he began to feel unwell, struggling with fever, aches and fatigue. At first the family was not concerned, but after eight days of fever, things went downhill fast. The dreaded cough started and soon Mike was struggling to breathe.
"You could just see his chest, his back because it was just rapid, fast breathing. And my heart just dropped," his wife Dana told W5. "My stomach sank. And I'm just like, 'Oh my gosh, this is like this is it.' Because I knew that was the next kind of big symptom."
That night Chow was taken to the intensive care unit of the Surrey Memorial Hospital where he was put on a ventilator to feed his body the oxygen it required to survive.
"Mike was one of our first desperately ill COVID patients. He decompensated very, very quickly, requiring full life support measures within a couple hours of arriving in the hospital," said ICU Dr. Greg Haljan.
Chow was on a ventilator for 19 days until he was able to breathe on his own. Six months later, Chow is still dealing with the after-effects of the virus including physical limitations, decreased lung capacity and debilitating joint pain.
Thousands of Canadians echo Chow's experience and have sought online COVID-19 support groups. One Facebook group called "COVID Long Haulers Support Group" has over 3,900 members, all finding comfort in knowing that they are not alone in their suffering.
W5 spoke to 16 members in a virtual town hall to understand the impact this has on their lives. The lingering symptoms these long-haulers described range from hair loss, to heart issues, to chronic fatigue.
At Toronto's University Health Network, a survivor study is now underway, examining the lingering effects of acute and non-acute COVID-19 infection. Co-led by Dr. Margaret Herridge and Dr. Angela Cheung, the study plans to look at thousands of Canadians who are still suffering symptoms of the disease.
With the help of 100 researchers across Canada, the study is seeking to understand those who are at increased risk for severe symptoms and long-term health effects and help inform large-scale public health planning, clinical care, and ongoing resources required to combat the virus.
"We have only known this virus for eight, nine months and so really, there are lots of things that we don't know about it. And I guess that's one of the purpose of this study is really to understand better and to see the whole spectrum between those who are asymptomatic, those who are mildly symptomatic to those who are severely affected, requiring critical care," said Dr. Cheung.
Meanwhile, Mike Chow is slowly regaining strength by exercising a few times a week and has a word of warning.
"Even if it hits you mildly you may still have post COVID issues. You might never be the same again."