How are Sanne, Chris, and Marit doing now?
a year on
‘I don’t think that I’ll be back to normal in a couple of months or maybe even years. At the moment, I feel like I’m at 30 percent of where I used to be.’
Three and a half years after the start of the pandemic, the world has moved on from Covid-19. But not the people suffering from long Covid, the still unexplained disease which comes with symptoms such as extreme fatigue, headaches, palpitations, and difficulty concentrating.
Sanne Schilstra had to give up her medical studies because of it. She contracted Covid in June 2021 and became extremely sensitive to light and sound, leading to intense fatigue. She would throw up day and night and had to be rushed to the emergency room several times. Even walking became exhausting. In the end, she decided to move back in with her parents in Nijmegen.
Now, two years on, her life is still defined by her illness. ‘I have to take two or three naps a day and there are long periods of time where I simply can’t do anything.’ She is making slow progress, though, she says proudly. ‘I wanted to try something to stimulaete my brain, so I started voluntary work at the hospital. Last summer, I could only work thirty minutes per week and now I’m up to two to three hours per week.’
Philosophy student Chris van Vliet also had to drop out. ‘I couldn’t read academic articles anymore. For a long time, I wasn’t able to focus on anything, and with philosophical texts, you have to think a lot – maybe too much sometimes’, he says, laughing. ‘I had to start small, so I began by reading kids’ books and slowly built up from there.’
I had to change doctors four times, because we weren’t seeing any change
Marit Slob, meanwhile, did manage to pass her first year of medical studies. ‘You have to, in order to continue, so I had no other choice but to try to get better.’
Finding someone that could help her was challenging, since the disease is so new and no no one knew how it would develop. ‘I had to change doctors four times, because we weren’t seeing any change after treatments. With the doctor I’m currently seeing, there is more progress.’
She suffered from heart palpitations, and just walking up the stairs would send her heart racing. ‘My heart rate has improved a bit’, she says. ‘Not a lot in a year, but it’s still something. Now I can walk more than fifteen minutes without getting tired.’
Breathwork exercises diminished the hyperventilation that Marit was experiencing, and exercises to release muscle tension accelerated her improvement. ‘Until then, I wasn’t aware of my breath and how much stress I hold in my body. Now, whenever I’m getting tired or stressed and my heart rate goes up, I know how to regulate my breath so that I can calm down’, she explains.
Chis decided to turn to holistic medicine. ‘Meditation and breathwork practices helped me to delve deeper into some childhood traumas that I didn’t know I still had’, he says. ‘I realised that I had to work through them in order to get rid of Covid. So-called alternative, mind-body medicine enabled me to get to the root cause of the problem, instead of following ways of Western medicine and taking more drugs, for example.’
I had to work through some childhood traumas to get rid of Covid
Before he became ill, he says, he was overworked, stressed, and didn’t take good care of himself. ‘Maybe my body was also telling me that I needed a break. Now I don’t scroll on my phone anymore before I go to sleep or immediately after I wake up, and I sleep much better. I’m also eating healthier and exercising more.’
Today, he feels even better than before Covid. ‘Maybe it sounds crazy, but I’m actually very thankful that I got ill. Being alone with my thoughts for such an extended period of time allowed me to find out who I am deep down, free from all the roles that I used to identify myself with’, says Chris. ‘It was an intense process, but I am very grateful for my emotional and spiritual growth that I’ll take with me for the rest of my life.’
What has helped Sanne was focusing on exercise. ‘I started doing yoga at home a year ago and I’m going to the physiotherapist regularly too. I’m trying to build up my muscles again.’ She’s also been taking medication to stop her throwing up.
While a lot of friends supported her, she also lost some of them because of her illness. ‘In the end, some people can’t offer you what you need anymore. And that’s fine, that’s life’, she says. She does miss her friends from Groningen, but many of them have moved on from the city by now as well. ‘And in Nijmegen, I can reconnect with my high school friends, which is nice.’
Chris had a hard time keeping in touch with his friends. ‘I would go out for a concert and the first few minutes, it would be fine. I could be myself and engage in conversations, but after that I would get very tired and had to leave. I couldn’t keep up with what I was doing before.’
He did manage to find a new network, though: a Facebook group with other long Covid sufferers. ‘I subscribed to this workshop where we would meet online and sing happy, encouraging songs. It let me release the tension in my body. That really kept me going.’
Some people can’t offer you what you need anymore
Marit was new to Groningen when she fell ill. ‘I had to make friends while I already had long Covid’, she says. ‘I would go out and then go home quickly, because I instantly got tired.’ Her friends were understanding of her situation, though. ‘Everyone was very kind and they always offered to help if I needed anything. They still cheer for me when there is any slight improvement.’
She’s sad she’s still not able to be as active as she used to be, but getting long Covid did make her realise how important becoming a doctor is to her. ‘And it’s also made me more empathetic towards patients and what they are going through. Most of the doctors I’ve encountered aren’t very considerate of people’s emotions.’
Chris, too, sees the positive in what happened to him. ‘Before I got sick, I didn’t appreciate enough what I had, so in that way, getting sick was a good thing for me. But I’m also grateful that I’ve fully recovered’, he says.
Last September, he resumed his studies, after a one-year delay. ‘I’ve already passed two courses and now I only have to do my thesis. I’m still taking it slowly, though.’
Sanne doesn’t know yet whether she’ll go back to studying medicine. ‘The UG told me that I can always come back and continue where I left off, but I don’t want to put too much pressure on myself.’
She has gone back to university, though: she’s just started with biomedical sciences at the university of Nijmegen. ‘It’s a very flexible study programme. I’m allowed to study only one or two days per week, which is manageable for me right now. Last year I thought that I wasn’t capable of doing this, so I’m happy with myself.’
First episode: Knocked down by long Covid: ‘The old me is gone’