Texas Trauma Surgeon Warns of COVID-19’s Long-Term Effects on Lungs
Full disclosure: This is the sort of story that's personal for me. If you've read some of my past articles, you may know that I care for my mother, who's lived with me for several years now after a battle with severe pneumonia left her unable to work and to do many things for herself.
Back in fall of 2015, she spent a little over two months in the ICU at Scott & White, and most of that time was spent on a ventilator. Her chest x-rays were snow white at first and for the longest time, meaning that pneumonia was especially invasive and aggressive. The doctors later told me that they eventually had to start using some of the strongest drugs they could find, and if those didn't work, she wouldn't have made it. (I'm glad they didn't tell me that when she was in the ICU. I was already a nervous wreck.)
It was the most terrifying time of my life, and when mom woke up and was eventually released from the hospital, she wasn't even able to walk. We didn't have a wheelchair then, so I carried her into the house on my back and continued to support her when she needed to walk anywhere in the house for over a year. I also had to help her eat, as she could barely lift a spoonful of food.
After a much physical therapy and support from her awesome doctors (plus home nurses who would stop by every few weeks to check on her), she's finally able to get around more and do a few things on her own around the house. Unfortunately, she has to be assisted by an oxygen concentrator or tank 24 hours a day.
My mother was in her mid-50's when this happened. She wasn't in the prime shape of her life, but she wasn't particularly unhealthy. She's never smoked, and aside from the occasional cold, she never had any lung problems. She'd been in the workforce every day since the age of 15, and now she was unable to earn a living for herself, and even had to depend on me to carry her to the bathroom. It wasn't easy for her to adjust to being dependent on anyone other than herself.
I know that's a long preface to this article, but I felt my experience with caring for someone who's experienced sudden, severe damage to their lungs after catching an illness out of the blue might give anyone reading this a window into what some people might experience if they contract COVID-19.
In a NewsNation Now story shared by KTSM-TV, reporter Markie Martin speaks with Texas trauma surgeon Dr. Brittany Bankhead-Kendall, who's trying to spread awareness of the toll COVID-19 has taken on the lungs of patients, either as a result of the virus itself or the treatment needed to keep some patients alive.
According to Dr. Bankhead-Kendall, months of reviewing patient x-rays has revealed what she calls a norm, not a trend: dense patches of white that indicate residual COVID-19 or damage to lungs due to treatment. She says it's too early to tell if these damage lungs will repair themselves over time, or if the scarring will be permanent.
You can see photos of the doctor's comparison x-rays here. It includes healthy lungs, smoker's lungs, and COVID-19 lungs.
“Not everyone who is doing really, really poorly has a terrible chest X-ray,” Dr. Bankhead-Kendall said. “And not everyone who is doing really, really well has a good-looking chest X-ray.” She said the virus is not a "bimodal" disease that you have and they're just all better. It can linger and continue to impact your health and lifestyle.
Personally, I've known people who've had mild cases of COVID-19 that barely made them feel sick, and I've known people who have had it and been absolutely miserable. Thankfully, no one I know has passed away as a result of the virus (though one uncle was in dire condition), but that hasn't been the case for many families.
So, as you can tell, my reason for sharing this story with you is deeply personal. I've witnessed someone in otherwise fine health stripped of their independence and much of their physical strength after an illness attacked their lungs and left them battling for their life in the ICU.
My mother's lungs have never fully healed, and she's reliant on concentrated oxygen and several medications to help her function despite that.
I shudder to think what would happen if she contracted COVID-19.
When we wear a mask and practice physical distancing, it's to protect others who, if they're doing the same, are also protecting us. Great progress has been made in understanding and treating COVID-19, and the vaccine is finally rolling out, but given how unpredictable its effect on many people remains, we've got to keep looking out for each other.
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