Our story published Sunday about “long COVID” — those COVID-19 survivors who have long-term, sometimes debilitating and dangerous symptoms long after the onset of the disease — was alarming.
My colleague Colleen Curran described patients with crippling fatigue, headaches, chest pain, blood clots, memory problems, even temporary paralysis. Studies vary widely and much is still not known, but continuing chronic symptoms stemming from COVID-19 could become their own public health problem, a VCU doctor warned.
Of course, most people who contract COVID-19 do not die — some don’t even exhibit any symptoms — and not everyone who survives the virus will wind up with serious, lingering effects. But that’s how it goes with disease: You just don’t know how it’s going to affect individuals or why. The odds might be in your favor, but that doesn’t always mean you’re going to come up a winner.
The notion of letting a disease run its course through a population simply because the vast majority of people are going to survive anyway seems wrongheaded and more than a little unkind when measures to mitigate the disease are available.
Vaccines have largely wiped out many of the childhood diseases I knew — and had — as a kid. Even back then, most children came through them just fine, but some did not, and vaccines have saved a lot of lives — and a lot of long-term consequences you wouldn’t necessarily think about. (Polio, of course, was another matter altogether as far as seriousness, but also one defeated with a vaccine.)
When I was growing up in the ’60s, I was under the impression childhood diseases were part of the school curriculum: I had chicken pox in first grade, measles in the second, mumps in the third and rubella in the fourth. My experiences with each seemed pretty run-of-the-mill: I got to stay home, watch daytime television and eat chicken noodle soup. I don’t recall being terribly sick, though there was great anxiety with rubella as my mother was pregnant with my youngest sister at the time.
Rubella — now uncommon in the United States because of a vaccine — was an infection that typically caused mild flu-like symptoms and a skin rash but could cause serious problems to babies in the womb. In our family, everything turned out fine.
With mumps, a virus that typically starts with a fever and aches and winds up with swollen salivary glands, I checked all the boxes, particularly the one next to “swollen glands.” I looked like a chipmunk with a full mouth.
At some point during my recovery, it dawned on me I couldn’t hear out of my right ear. (I’m not real observant, so I don’t recall how long it took me to figure this out.) My parents took me to our family physician. The thought was, maybe I just needed a good ear-cleaning. He blasted a bunch of water into my ear, and found some cool stuff, but not my hearing.
Next stop was an ear, nose and throat doc, who ran some tests and couldn’t find a physical reason why my hearing was gone — except that sometimes mumps did this to kids, he said. Oh.
Well, it turns out that while hearing loss associated with mumps is not overly common, it’s also not, ahem, unheard of. From what I’ve read, it’s not really clear what mumps does to the inner ear, but it happens from time to time, and one report I read said it almost always affects only one ear. I’m certainly grateful for that.
To my way of thinking, losing the hearing in one ear is not in the same realm with chest pains, blood clots and temporary paralysis that some stricken with COVID have experienced. I’ve lived without hearing in the one ear for 55 years, and I’ve come to view it as little more than an inconvenience. (I mean, I still have the other one.) But it is an example of a virus’s startling side effect with long-lasting implications.
Doctors always told me there was nothing they could do, that there was no hearing aid, no surgery that could restore my hearing. So, there wasn’t much else to do except sort of roll with it, and, frankly, if a miracle cure emerged next week I’m not sure what I would do with two good ears at this stage of the game. The extra sound might be too much.
One of the great advantages, I’ve found, is that I sleep great. When I put my left ear on the pillow, I’m gone. Of course, I’ve also been known to fall asleep on the New York subway, so maybe I’m naturally a sound sleeper.
I’ve never heard true stereo — if what I read is true — with only one ear, but I don’t know what I’m missing, so there’s that. I put headphones and earbuds on/in both ears, but it’s only for show.
On the first date with my future wife almost 40 years ago, one of my opening lines was, “I’m sorry, this isn’t going to work” — a comment on her sitting to my right in the booth, not our future prospects. But I had to explain that.
Biggest problem I have is discerning where sounds come from, so if I’m on a downtown street and I hear my name called, I whirl around and look in every direction like some sort of wildly spinning top (almost never actually finding who called my name). It’s also possible I’m just naturally oblivious and my problem is a lack of awareness, not hearing.
In any case, if you come up on my right, and I don’t acknowledge you, it’s almost certainly because I didn’t hear you (although I could be ignoring you).
The Food and Drug Administration licensed the first mumps vaccine the year after I had mumps. Missed it by that much.
But I don’t intend to miss the COVID-19 vaccine when it’s my turn. My only question is, “Which arm?”