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Less COVID, More College: A Student’s Long COVID Journey at the Day Program

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College-bound Annalise Schwecke knew a bout with long COVID was always possible. “It was on our minds because my family has a lot of autoimmune disorders. We were already concerned about getting long COVID, and we tried really hard not to get COVID in general,” she recalled.

Annalise Schwecke in hospital bed, recovering from long covid

But when she contracted the illness in January 2022, Schwecke held out hope that her symptoms would fade. She was only seventeen after all, and complications from COVID tend to affect older age groups. However, her pain, exhaustion and breathing problems continued through February, even with the test results from her primary care doctor coming back clear.  “That was when we knew what we were dealing with,” she said.

It was a wise evaluation from the future neuroscience major. According to pediatric allergist and immunologist Nathan Rabinovitch, MD, symptoms without a clear cause are a trademark of long COVID, especially among younger patients. In fact, this sometimes leads to doctors telling people that what they’re experiencing is all in their heads.

However, after researching the disease’s effects on children, Dr. Rabinovitch has been able to peel back long COVID’s curtain enough to understand its physiological reality. “There are ways of diagnosing these patients, not just clinically but objectively. We try to get as much objective data and truth as we can,” he said.

So when Schwecke arrived at National Jewish Health in March, the priority was revealing the precise factors behind her symptoms. Working initially with Ronina Covar, MD, in the hospital’s Day Program for kids, Schwecke underwent a series of tests. The examinations included everything from rheumatology to neuropathy. The wide-ranging symptoms of long COVID can make it tricky to pin down. This was especially true for the general pain and fatigue Schwecke experienced.

One of the factors that allowed doctors to develop Schwecke’s treatment plan was the unique system of coordinated care at National Jewish Health. In this model, specialists in different disciplines can communicate across departments to establish a more holistic diagnosis. This is also preferable for patients who would otherwise have to visit multiple specialists in different locations.

After a few days of testing, the Day Program team was able to develop a regimen of physical therapy and medication. This treatment would cause Schwecke’s symptoms to improve over the coming weeks. “I noticed that my stamina was getting a lot better,” she said. “The neurology team there was encouraging. They said that I would probably start seeing rapid improvements within a year.”

Schwecke’s long COVID symptoms began to wane. Soon she felt well enough to attend her first semester at DePaul University in Chicago. This fall she’s been balancing her recovery with college life and a schedule filled with math and science courses. However, the young student has also been able to gradually resume ballet practice in her spare time.

Schwecke now reflects on her relationship with the doctors at National Jewish Health with more of a neuroscience major’s mindset. For her, it was another form of mentorship. “That was another good thing. They were so open with the experience that I got to learn things too, which was really interesting,” she said.

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