Am I dying?’ Norway student battles against ‘long-haul’ COVID
By JERRY DEROCHE
Iron Mountain Daily News
NORWAY — Last September, 16-year-old Donna VanHolla began to feel a sharp pain in her left side, like a pencil being stuck into her ribs.
In the coming days, the pain expanded throughout her chest and her breathing became labored.
Understandably concerned, Donna’s parents — Dr. David and Julie VanHolla of Norway — contacted a cardiologist at Dickinson County Healthcare, now Marshfield Clinic Health System-Dickinson.
The diagnosis, in part, was pleurisy, a condition in which the two large, thin layers of tissue that separate the lungs from the chest wall become inflamed. The inflammation causes sharp chest pain that worsens during breathing.
“I wasn’t really tired; it was more like I felt pressure and pain in my chest,” Donna said. “It felt like suffocation. It was a really scary thing. Every time I would breathe there was a really sharp pain.
he was not, but she was about to descend into a rather murky and debilitating coronavirus health condition referred to by varying names such as “long-haul COVID” and “post-COVID syndrome.” Symptoms of this illness, according to www.cdc.gov, include a host of problems like general fatigue (including worsening symptoms after physical or mental effort), difficulty breathing or shortness of breath, chest pain, brain fog, headache, dizziness and joint or muscle pain.
Some also endure symptoms that are harder to explain and manage.
According to Johns Hopkins Medicine’s website, COVID-19 can attack the body in a range of ways, causing damage to the lungs, heart, nervous system, kidneys, liver and other organs. Mental health problems can arise from grief and loss, unresolved pain or fatigue.
“… It is notable that post-COVID-19 syndrome is not just afflicting people who were very sick with the coronavirus,” the website said. “Some patients who were never severely ill with COVID-19 are experiencing long-term symptoms.”
Johns Hopkins Medicine adds that even a mild COVID-19 infection can cause persistent shortness of breath and getting winded easily after even light exertion.
“Lung recovery after COVID-19 is possible but takes time,” according to the Johns Hopkins website. “Experts say it can take months for a person’s lung function to return to pre-COVID-19 levels. Breathing exercises and respiratory therapy can help.”
The syndrome continues to be a topic of ample research and study.
For Donna, her doctors initially planned to treat her pain and breathing difficulty with a variety of vitamins, plus fish oil to lubricate her lungs.
That prescribed treatment did not work. Then Donna began experiencing overwhelming fatigue.
“I had a free hour before lunch and a free hour after lunch, so I would go home and I would sleep for those three hours and then I’d come back to school and finish the rest of my day,” she said of her routine last year. “I was also getting 10 hours of sleep at night.”
“She wasn’t getting any better and she couldn’t stay awake,” Julie VanHolla added. “It was very unusual for her. She was always full of life and has always been so active.”
In addition, the three-sport athlete at Norway High School was in the midst of rehabilitating a knee she dislocated during a regional softball game the previous spring. While rehabbing a knee injury is often difficult, Donna faced an extra challenge as she prepared to play basketball in last winter.
“I was experiencing the chest pain, and I was having a really hard time breathing during my exercises. So I had to stop my physical therapy because I really couldn’t focus on my leg.”
That setback added to her mounting physical problems, and it wasn’t long before the bubbly teenager began struggling emotionally. Frustration set in, anxiety peaked and periods of depression followed as she continued to battle the mysterious illness.
“You almost wish there was something wrong that they could see,” Donna said. “It was really hard mentally to go to doctors and they would tell you it will just get better over time.”
In time, Donna did receive a name (or nickname) to hang onto her condition, from Dr. Alexis Cirilli-Whaley of DCH. Whaley told her she was a “long hauler,” meaning someone suffering from the long-term aftereffects of having COVID-19.
“None of the doctors really understood, but (Dr. Whaley) was ready to dive into it and figure it out,” Donna said. “It was in January when I finally got that this could be long-haul.”
As it turned out, having something to call her health issues was a mixed blessing.
“It relieved me to tell my coaches, ‘Hey I’m not dying even though it looks like it.’ But it was hard, because you’re just putting this label out that nobody understood,” Donna said.
And by that point, her junior basketball season was in tatters. She never regained the conditioning required to play and was limited to short periods of time on the floor.
Plus, she was getting dizzy on the court and would sometimes get so weak that she could hardly perform basic fundamentals. One time, she even forgot whether she was on offense or defense.
But mostly it was her breathing that held her back, even after she tried a steroid booster and an inhaler.
“It felt like I was getting squeezed,” Donna said. “I wouldn’t shoot because my arms were so weak that I couldn’t barely (get the ball) to the hoop. I couldn’t really dribble because my focus and my vision were off. In transition, I was the last one down the court.
“It never got better during my basketball season.”
Then-Norway girls varsity basketball coach Joe Tinti attested to VanHolla’s issues on the court.
“She didn’t have her lungs,” he said. “She went from being a player that we could never take off the floor to being really limited. Our goal was to start her and go two minutes to get her lungs going at the start to see how she was that night.”
“It was horrible, watching her from the stands,” Julie said. “It was absolutely not her at all. She used to be a player that never came out and now she couldn’t breathe out there.”
“It was almost one thing after another,” Donna said.
Fortunately, Donna soon tried two treatments that did begin to have some effect. She began receiving acupuncture for her anxiety and a natural medication called Ribes Nigrum for energy from Spine Pain Diagnostics Associates in Niagara, Wis. Plus, she visited Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin in Milwaukee during this period and was diagnosed with vocal cord dysfunction, a condition that greatly affected breathing while exercising.
With that diagnosis, she began to retrain her breathing during activity with the help of a speech pathologist in Green Bay.
Her problems weren’t just on the court. Donna had social difficulties, as friends and teammates were confused by her symptoms and behavior. She became isolated from her peers due to all her missed school time and the hours she spent sleeping.
“It was really difficult to explain it to my friends,” Donna said. “There wasn’t a whole lot of information on long-haulers. My teachers were good about it … but when it came to sports and my friends, I think it was hard from them to understand.
“I was already such an anxious person, but this was really, really difficult,” Donna said. “I spent most of my nights talking with my parents.”
“We could tell she was frustrated,” Julie added. “She was very emotional and we talked a lot.”
The situation finally began to perk up for Donna in the spring. A key member of the Knights’ district championship softball squad, she started to perform more like herself, so much so that she earned honorable mention on the Michigan High School Softball Coaches Association Division 4 all-state squad.
“It was actually one of the most rewarding things ever,” Donna said of the recognition. “That was so rewarding because after this winter, I felt like I was never going to get better.”
Donna said she has received “a ton” of support along the way, which helped her beat back the torrent of negative thoughts she’d experienced about future. Now, she has begun to take every positive experience she has in school and in sports with an extra bit of appreciation.
“Just the feeling that I am getting a little bit better just kept me going and going. And even that I still can play, that is amazing,” she said.
Donna has gone about her summer as such. She participated with her teammates in a summer basketball camp at Carney-Nadeau High School and prepared to join the girls tennis team this fall.
The basketball camp, she said, provided a glimpse into her present level of conditioning.
“I’ve been trying,” Donna said. “I still am having difficulties with breathing when I am playing, but I’m not as tired. The natural medication for energy really helps so much.
“I still have to come out pretty often, but I’m lasting a bit longer now.”
When asked how she feels on a scale of 1-10, with 10 being the best, Donna said she’s a 9 right now. She explained that the number only goes down when she’s exercising.
Plus, she said she doesn’t require three-hour naps at this point.
With her daughter’s improvements, Julie said she feels optimistic that Donna’s senior year can be rewarding and memorable, both academically and athletically.
One of the big moments of anticipation for Donna is being able to run back onto the basketball court feeling like her former self.
“It will mean so to me,” she said, tearing up. “I just can’t wait to feel 100 percent. And I know I’ll do whatever it takes to do that.”
For more information on long-term COVID, see www.cdc.gov or hopkins