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Doctors continue to learn about COVID-19 'long haulers'

The list of issues experienced by many COVID-19 patients run the gamut.

INDIANAPOLIS — COVID-19 has now taken the lives of more than 500,000 Americans. 

Mark Robbins, a 49-year-old father, said he could have been one of them. 

“They said, 'Look, if you would have come in March when this thing first broke out, you’d probably be dead,'” said Robbins, a Fishers resident.

Robbins had no serious underlying conditions but spent more than a month in the hospital, including two weeks on a ventilator, and barely pulled through. He was able to go home just before Christmas.

But a full three months after getting COVID-19, his recovery continues. The psychological impact is the biggest he feels. 

“I’ll pick up my phone and think, 'Why in the world did I just pick that up?'” said Robbins. “It’s the short-term memory category, that mental stress category and then the respiratory issues. They have told me it will take six to 12 months to get back to 100 percent.”

He is one of COVID’s “long haulers,” still feeling the effects of the disease months after recovery, and doctors are learning that in cases like Robbins, it’s typical.

“These patients who have long COVID, it is occurring in about 90 percent of patients who were in the hospital and particularly those in the intensive care unit,” said Dr. Sikander Khan of the IU School of Medicine.

Khan sees patients in IU Health ICU Survivor Center, a specialized facility to help with recovery after patients leave the hospital.

He says the post-COVID issues run the gamut.

“Fatigue, muscle weakness, difficulty sleeping, mental health changes, so new anxiety or depression,” said Khan.

A full recovery varies, if achieved at all. But Robbins is optimistic, and thankful to still be here.

“I certainly wasn’t expecting this scenario, where on the bell curve I am basically on the one end that nearly died,” said Robbins. “It really is a long haul. It hits you in ways that I never would have expected.”