PENDLETON — For six months, Kari Rodriguez kept a note thumb-tacked above her bed with her name, address and allergies to medication.
The note was for her three children. If she didn’t wake up, this was what they would tell 911.
“I’d like to say I survived COVID,” said Rodriguez, 36, a lifelong Pendleton resident. “But part of me didn’t survive.”
Rodriguez has spent most of her time during the past year lost in an endless daze of pain and confusion. She contracted COVID-19 in July 2020, shortly after her husband tested positive, but she didn’t have symptoms and wasn’t hospitalized.
She thought she was one of the lucky ones. But things became much worse. More than a year later, she struggles to walk and breathe.
Rodriguez has long COVID-19, a condition where the body breaks down well after the virus has run its course. The syndrome continues to stump medical experts and is having a wide-ranging impact.
A June report by FAIR Health, a health care nonprofit, analyzed private health care claim records for nearly 2 million people diagnosed with COVID-19 in 2020. It found almost a quarter of people develop at least one lingering symptom long after being infected. Women are more likely to report long COVID-19 symptoms than men, the study found.
Those symptoms include pain, trouble breathing, high cholesterol, malaise and/or fatigue and high blood pressure. For some, the effects are far worse. Victims of long COVID-19 can face serious health threats up to six months after they catch the virus, according to research in Nature.
In Rodriguez’s case, her symptoms have included vertigo, migraines, gastrointestinal symptoms, blurred vision, fatigue, brain fog and leg pain. She also has been diagnosed with Meniere’s disease, hypertension, migraines, small fiber neuropathy and, in May, stage 3 chronic kidney disease.
Her only previous health condition: seasonal allergies and a sore back from having three kids.
Now, Rodriguez is trying to recover one step at a time. It’s been more than a year since she’s returned to her job at the Safeway deli. Recently she gained the strength to do her children’s laundry and cook them dinner.
“I want to be able to do things with my kids in the future,” she said. “I want to be able to go on vacation. I want to be able to walk the beach with them. Those are huge plans for me, and every day that I get up and do something little is putting me closer to doing the bigger things.”
And with COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations skyrocketing in Umatilla County, she said she hopes her story will serve as a cautionary tale to skeptics.
“I read the comments on Facebook, and I know I shouldn’t do that,” she said. “But it hurts so much to see people say that COVID is fake or say that it’s just the flu. It’s taken my life away from me — what life I used to have.”
Living with long COVID-19
In the weeks after she tested negative for COVID-19, Rodriguez knew something was wrong. She wasn’t getting better.
She had developed high blood pressure and began to lose her eyesight. Migraines settled in. A searing pain had developed in her legs when she would walk. She was growing much sicker, but it was difficult to find a doctor who could tell her what was going on.
For her migraines, doctors initially prescribed hydrocodone, which she took three times a day. She hated the opiate. It left her in a haze for more than a month. She would take up to five naps a day, and her children had difficulty waking her up.
Her pharmacist prescribed Narcan in case of an emergency where she didn’t wake up. She didn’t want her children to use it, so she put the note above her bed for her kids to call 911. The Narcan still sits on the nightstand beside her bed, just in case.
“There were times I didn’t think I would live,” she said. “I told my husband, ‘I know it’s COVID-19, but if I die, I don’t want you to wait to have a funeral. I want my family to be there. I want everybody to be there.’”
Eventually, a doctor at CHI St. Anthony in Pendleton diagnosed her with long COVID-19. In the months to come, doctors would diagnose her with a variety of other illnesses, including Meniere’s disease, a rare disorder of the inner ear known to cause vertigo and tinnitus.
Initially, Rodriguez only struggled to hear with her right ear. During the past month, she’s begun losing hearing in her left ear, too. It sounds like being submerged underwater, she says. When the tinnitus is at its worst, that sound becomes an electric screech.
The vertigo became a day-to-day struggle for Rodriguez. Standing to talk or get a glass of water, the room would spin and she would collapse or walk into doorways.
“Those were dark days,” she said. “For me and my kids.”
Amid the brain fog, she began to forget things, including the names of her own family members. One night she left her garden hose on and turned the lawn into a swamp. Another night she told her children to wash their feet for dinner. On Thanksgiving, she put half a cup of salt in the pumpkin pie. She said it tasted terrible, but her kids still ate it.
“I’m grateful now if I can make my kids brownies or cook them dinner without it tasting horrible,” she said.
One step at a time
Since starting physical therapy in April, things have slowly gotten better for Rodriguez. She does exercises at home with her daughter, Adriana. Her family supports her, with her mother taking her to doctor’s appointments and her husband sometimes taking days off work.
Before she fell ill, power walking the Pendleton River Parkway along the Umatilla River through Pendleton was one of Rodriguez’s favorite things to do. She could easily walk the 2.5-mile path every day. In April, she set out with the simple goal to walk that distance again.
At first she couldn’t walk further than a single block. Her legs would burn. She would feel pressure in her ears and a sensation pulling her to the ground. But she listened to her body, and each day she set out to move a bit further. After five months of effort, she can finally walk more than a mile.
“When I started to get active, I realized that I could take control of my life again,” she said.
Her daughters trade off joining her on the walks along the river. They were recently vaccinated against COVID-19, the oldest at Wildhorse Resort and Casino and her two youngest at the Pendleton Farmers Market.
“I actually cried watching my kids get the vaccine,” she said. “It actually is hope for me. Like this is going to end and that they won’t end up catching it and have horrible things like this happen.”
The moment was a promise of a future Rodriguez was once unsure she would have. She’s come to accept her life with the illness, and appreciates her walks by the river more than ever before.
“I know I’m not going to die now,” she said. “I know that. I have bad days where I hurt more than I’ve ever hurt in my entire life. But I know I’m going to keep going, and I’m going to get up and keep going through the day.”