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Dr. Sanjay Gupta: That’s the sound of celebration as another recovered Covid-19 patient is healthy enough to go home from the hospital.
Michael Herbert: A doctor who I had not seen before comes in and he said, “Hi, my name is Dr. Ling, I need to do a rather aggressive treatment on you. Do you have a wife and children? If so, we need to call them and, and tell them, you need to essentially tell them goodbye. Because you have about a 20% chance of surviving this.”
Gupta: I can’t even, can’t even imagine. Is it hard to talk about?
Herbert: The hardest part of all to remember is the phone call to my wife and kids. I mean, that was just awful.
Gupta: What started as a cough and a fever, ended with 49-year-old Michael Herbert in the intensive care unit, unsure if he’d see ever his family again.
Herbert: I didn’t know what was going to happen, if I was gonna wake up or not.
Gupta: Michael was in a medically induced coma and on a ventilator for the next six days. But just as quickly as he had become sick, he recovered. Not long after, he was released from the hospital.
And it struck me, that in all the numbers that we hear about coronavirus — number of people infected, number of people who have sadly died — we haven’t heard as much about another group of patients, those who have recovered.
Maria Van Kerkhove, infectious disease epidemiologist and technical lead for Covid-19, World Health Organization: There are more than a million people that have recovered, many people are doing very well. It depends on how severe the virus was and what disease that they had.
Gupta: That’s Maria Van Kerkhove, an infectious disease epidemiologist with the World Health Organization.
Van Kerkhove: We are seeing some individuals that are having some long-term problems with their lungs and breathing. But we need to follow individuals over time. Just because they test negative and they’re released from hospital, there needs to be rehabilitation. There needs to be follow-up.
But the majority of people who do have Covid-19 will recover and will be OK.
Gupta: I wanted to find out how Michael was doing, so I followed up with him a few weeks after he’d been discharged from the hospital.
Herbert: I had to use a cane when I came out of the hospital. Like for a week or so I couldn’t walk really without possibility of stumbling and falling. But my strength has come back, so that’s part of my recovery.
I really don’t have much of a sense of smell anymore. I really can’t smell anything right now, unless I put my face right into it. But I haven’t had a fever. I haven’t had, you know, any of the symptoms since I got back. So I keep growing stronger.
Gupta: So it is true that most people will recover from Covid-19, but what does recovery really mean for them?
We know that even young, previously healthy, athletic people have reported shortness of breath months into their recovery.
Other symptoms might include fatigue, brain fog, memory loss.
But I think the biggest concern is the potential long-term impact on patients’ lungs.
Herbert: It’s my lungs that are taking the longest. When I first got out of the hospital, I was told by the doctors, the pulmonologist in particular, that my lungs would probably take four to eight weeks to heal.
I can tell they’re not 100% right now and I guess I shouldn’t expect them to be. They told me it would be a while for them to be all the way back. I don’t know when to expect them to be back or if they ever will be all the way.
Gupta: There are a still a lot of unknowns about Covid-19, and up until recently it was sort of considered a luxury to think about studying recovered patients.
But that’s exactly what Dr. Reynold Panettieri is doing. He’s trying to decipher these unknowns by conducting a six-month study of recovered coronavirus patients.
Dr. Reynold Panettieri, pulmonologist, vice chancellor for translational medicine and science director, Rutgers Institute for Translational Medicine: There’s several, several cases and participants who describe this ongoing fatigue and malaise, a feeling of “not well.”
What is curious is these patients premorbid, or prior to the infection, were even aggressive athletes, but what has occurred is a shortness of breath with exertion now and a marked attenuation in their quality of life and functional status. We would not have predicted that.
Gupta: One thing that could help predict long-term effects is looking at what happened during other coronavirus outbreaks.
Some studies of coronaviruses like SARS and MERS have identified cases of patients with lasting pulmonary fibrosis. That’s a type of scarring of the lungs.
If you look at a CT scan of these patients, they have fibrous stripes, which almost look like splattered paint on the lungs. That kind of damage can be an early sign of pulmonary fibrosis.
And now we’re seeing reports of Covid-19 patients with these same fibrous stripes on their CT scans.
Panettieri: In many other diseases, when you have an injury, there’s a scar that forms and that scar is protective. Now, when scars forming in critical organs like the lung or the heart or the liver, the scar in and of itself could be a part of the problem.
You really don’t want these organs to be massively scarred because they lose their delicate function.
Gupta: Dr. Panettieri is still in the early stages of his research, so for now we don’t yet know how this virus will truly affect us long-term.
Thankfully, Michael is doing well. He says he’s mostly recovered, and he’s happily reunited with his family.
Herbert: When I finally got to see them again, once I was taken off the ventilator, it was like the best thing that ever happened to me. I’m doing so much better. So much of my strength is returned.
I now try and get out there and walk and that winds me a little, but I started going back to work and I was working about two hours a day. I worked up to about half a day, and now I’m, now I’m working for about six hours a day before it’s time for me to take it a little easier.
Gupta: Every day we hear the death toll tragically continuing to rise, and we still have a lot to learn about this virus, how to fight it and what the long-term effects it might have on the human body. But as far as we can tell right now, it does seem like most people recover — and recover fully.
Not all roads to recovery are the same, but it’s important to remember they do exist.
We’ll be back tomorrow. Thanks for listening.