COVID-19 Recovery Program Cares for Those With Persistent Symptoms
Jan 26, 2021 Cedars-Sinai Staff
When Larry Searight came down with chills and a dry cough in late February 2020, COVID-19 was still just a news story to most—not yet a far-reaching global pandemic that would change nearly every aspect of daily life for people in the U.S. and around the globe.
The 62-year-old high school math teacher began to feel sicker over the following weeks and quarantined himself from his family. The now-familiar COVID-19 symptoms set in: severe shortness of breath, fatigue, body aches—all of them escalating until he went to a local emergency room near his Antelope Valley home.
"I was sick for more than a month," Larry says. "Then I discovered when I finally thought I was getting better, all of a sudden, I wasn't."
Larry is among a growing number of patients whose symptoms last long after the disease's initial onset and treatment. In response, Cedars-Sinai launched the COVID-19 Recovery Program, which connects COVID-19 patients with a network of specialists for ongoing treatment. Patients who are referred to the program are first given a comprehensive evaluation before being connected to specialists such as cardiologists, pulmonologists, neurologists and psychiatrists, as needed.
"We are a program where patients will be heard, thoroughly evaluated and connected with specialists," says Dr. Rachel Zabner, co-director of Cedars-Sinai's COVID-19 Recovery Program along with Dr. Catherine Le.
In addition to being treated by specialists, the program connects patients to research.
"We're learning as much as we can about these patients and how to help them. This is a completely new disease on a level we've never seen before, with so many intricacies. We have doctors and scientists here involved in studies that our patients can potentially benefit from—and when we find something that can help them, we reach out."
The program works closely with two other Cedars-Sinai COVID-19 programs: the Smidt Heart Institute's Post-COVID-19 Heart Program for patients with cardiac problems related to the illness, and the Cedars-Sinai Department of Medicine's Post-ICU Clinic.
Larry started his career in aerospace but found himself out of work when the industry in California went bust in the mid-1990s. He turned to teaching and stayed in the classroom for more than two decades, working mostly with at-risk kids.
Larry's school switched to remote learning during the pandemic. He found that he could barely sit up for the hours of instruction time. Then, he was left with little energy for the hours of work necessary to develop and revise lesson plans to adapt to the new online learning environment.
"I couldn't sit at my computer," he says. "I tried and tried. Finally, I had to explain to my administrator that I was still sick and couldn't make it through a whole school day."
He took sick leave, but his symptoms continued. Then, in the summer, he opted for early retirement.
Fatigue and dizziness are the symptoms that are persisting and affecting him the most. Sometimes, he can feel an episode coming on. Other times, severe fatigue strikes while he's running an errand.
"Sometimes, I've been doing well for a few days and try to go out and do something normal," he says. "Then I just can't. I've had to stop and lie down in the middle of a sidewalk. It can take 30 to 40 minutes to get enough strength to get back home."
Fortunately, he's never been alone during one of these episodes: His husband, Carlos Orantes, has always been at his side, just as he has been for 21 years.
Larry is seeing doctors at the COVID-19 Recovery Program for help with his symptoms. He's had multiple tests, and some results prompted referrals to have his heart checked with an echocardiogram.
He says the research aspect of the program offers him a great deal of hope, and he would welcome the opportunity to participate in future clinical trials.
"Finally, I'm being seen by a set of physicians who are curious and spending their time connecting the dots that seem unconnectable," he says. "I'm hopeful, now that I'm in those types of hands, something will be discovered someday."
Even though he hasn't found a treatment yet to fully restore his previous energy levels, he says just having someone who listens and understands his symptoms makes a difference.
"No one really talks about the emotional rollercoaster that goes along with all the physical symptoms of COVID-19," Larry says. "I was sick so early on, my doctors weren't sure what to do with me. To get to the COVID-19 Recovery Program, I was finally able to describe all my symptoms and have a doctor nod and say, 'Yes, that sounds just like all my other patients' is such a relief."