For Ashley Antonio, a mild case of COVID-19 has become a long-lasting misery.
She has been sick for 257 days.
“Some days I feel OK, other days I wake up and I can’t breathe, I can’t move,” Antonio said in an interview from her Edmonton home.
“I was extremely healthy. I had no pre-existing conditions, none of the comorbidities health officials were talking about, and it just came in like a wrecking ball and destroyed my life.”
The 35-year-old is among a growing number of Canadians known as COVID long-haulers — people who have struggled for months with persistent and sometimes debilitating symptoms.
There is an increasing body of research around chronic symptoms triggered by the virus — that research has provided very few answers for people like Antonio.
After being off for five months on short-term disability, Antonio has returned to work as an Edmonton-based trial lawyer.
Her ongoing symptoms remain painful and unpredictable, including blinding headaches, lung congestion, rashes, chronic swelling in her joints and heart palpitations.
As the number of COVID-19 cases in Alberta continues to escalate, Antonio wants people to fully understand the risks of the virus — especially that the disease can have dire consequences, even among healthy individuals.
Antonio used to exercise every day; now she struggles to get up a set of stairs without panting.
“The media and the medical community seem to give the impression that you are either recovered within 10 days and life is normal again, or you die,” Antonio said.
“And there is a huge group of people that are struggling somewhere in the middle of that and our lives are impacted every day in terrible ways.”
When Antonio fell ill in late March, she thought at first that it was a stomach flu. She was not tested for COVID-19.
Then she woke up one morning and could barely stand.
That was the first in a series of increasingly severe medical episodes. Antonio said her symptoms appeared to resolve after about a week but then reappeared.
Her body ached. Standing up made her heart race. A five-minute walk around the block would lead to black-outs. She struggled with her memory and concentration, struggling even to remember her own name. She often felt disoriented.
During one particularly alarming episode, she got home from work but couldn’t remember driving herself home.
Watch: Researchers examine chronic symptoms associated with COVID-19 :
Six weeks after her symptoms first appeared, she went to the hospital emergency department thinking she was having a stroke.
“I couldn’t feel half of my face and the whole left side of my body for about half-an-hour,” she said.
“The night prior, I had crazy night sweats. My bed was soaking wet and I was seeing things in the night and talking to people that I later found out were not there.”
That is when doctors told Antonio she was likely suffering from after-effects of COVID-19.
‘It could be forever’
She has been to the emergency room four times. Each time she was admitted and eventually sent home.
Antonio has since undergone a battery of tests to assess the damage. She has developed rheumatoid arthritis and diagnosed with postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS), a blood circulation disorder triggered by viruses.
Blood tests showed high levels of inflammation. An antibody test came back positive but dozens of other diagnostic scans have come back negative.
“If I’m not laying down, my heart rate is through the roof,” she said.
“To have it now be difficult to walk, and have that be chronic and likely progressive, is really distressing.”
Antonio said her case has proved puzzling to doctors. She wonders if her symptoms will ever fully resolve.
“Now, when I have a few good days, I know that the bad days are coming back. It just makes it feel like it will never end.”
“The scariest part is that they don’t know. It could be a few months, it could be a few more years, or it could be forever.”