Army Staff Sgt. Richard Haws said the last thing he expected after contracting the novel coronavirus was to become a statistic.
Haws, 32, was serving a demanding third year “on the trail” as a drill sergeant — a position he describes as “incredibly demanding,” requiring instructors to embody strength, stamina, and the Army standard, within the up before dawn, home after lights out schedule. It was during the highly-anticipated last cycle when COVID-19 showed up and changed the trajectory of Haws’ life for the foreseeable future.
“I assumed my recovery would be similar to my age group,” he said. But when the standard 14-day quarantine surpassed the 30-day mark, the continuous onslaught of new symptoms left Haws wondering if a return to baseline would ever occur.
During the initial infection period, Haws recalled feeling as if he had a bad case of seasonal allergies, but due to the time of year it seemed unlikely. Congestion, coughing, and sneezing was followed by body aches that worsened into what he described as feeling as if his very bones ached.
Finding some way to make light of a bad situation is a trait fitting of Haws’ personality. When his sense of taste and smell suddenly disappeared, he took it upon himself to truly test out the waters, reporting that indeed, “everything tasted like absolutely nothing … it was all just texture.”
Amusing at first, but Haws quickly learned that there was no way to satisfy a craving until “the taste/smell lights were turned back on.”
Feeling somewhat normal, and due to the unlikelihood of testing negative, Haws returned to duty. However just a few months later, out of the blue, things took a turn for the worse.
“I was at work, just off a 72-hour quarters for having chills and cold-like symptoms. Throughout the day brain fog set in and my speech became uncontrollably slow and difficult. The trainees noticed and asked if I was having a stroke. I reassured the group who were visibly upset, and went to the ER after my shift.”
Slurred/delayed speech and intermittent loss of taste and smell lasted around a week before tapering off again. The second wave of sorts which, unlike the first time, has yet to seemingly disappear.
The post-infection persistence of symptoms referred to as long COVID or long-hauling is a brand new category emerging in around 10% of COVID-19 positive individuals. Recently, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced a new initiative to study patients who don’t fully recover from COVID-19 symptoms, or those who fail to recover to baseline.
“Large numbers of patients who have been infected with SARS-CoV-2 continue to experience a constellation of symptoms long past the time that they’ve recovered from the initial stages of COVID-19 illness,” Dr. Francis S. Collins, Ph.D., director of NIH, stated on the organization’s website.
Long-hauling affects individuals regardless of age or health with no known correlation to suggest who may be at risk, according to UC Davis. Sufferers, like Haws, are completely unaware of how or when symptoms will arise, which only further complicates their ability to resume normal activities of daily life.
“This is incredibly frustrating,” Haws said. “My record — up to this point — spoke for itself. Going from training for a private pilot’s license, being completely in shape, performing as a drill sergeant to this is just …” – unacceptable is likely the word Haws was searching for, yet throughout the interview many sentences stalled or required pause.
The conversation picks back up as Haws describes how his weeks as of late have been spent in and out of urgent care for symptoms ranging from extreme tightness in his chest, difficulty breathing, confusion and more. Symptoms that providers worldwide lack an understanding of or have a proven treatment to address as it relates to a larger COVID picture.
Post-COVID Care Centers are emerging in the civilian healthcare sector as an effort to centralize care for long-haulers whose symptom list requires specialists spanning all areas, offers a ray of hope and deliverance from the stuff of medical bureaucratic nightmares. As civilian programs emerge, questions remain for long-hauling soldiers. Will the military create similar centralized symptoms to get their own “mission ready” and just how long will our nation’s finest need to “embrace the suck” without approved protocols?
The battle in front of Haws right now is finding a balance between advocating for his new limitations while continuing what was sure to be a promising military career.
“This is not a joke and I am not trying to get out of anything. I wish I could explain how taxing everything is even if it doesn’t appear that way. It’s not a sinus infection and the constant exhaustion is not from a lack of PT. Something as simple as listening to music is an overwhelming experience,” Haws said.
After hearing positive stories from an online survivors’ group, Haws recently decided to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, hopeful that his symptoms could diminish or even disappear. Unfortunately, that hope was short-lived as he reported experiencing only a short period of relief.
Read more: COVID-19 vaccines: What military families need to know