When 36-year-old Winnipegger Chelsea Kork contracted COVID-19 10 months ago, she called the experience "uneventful" at the time.
"I kept thinking my symptoms were going to get worse, but they didn’t, so I felt super lucky," she told the Free Press Sunday afternoon.
"So I just waited my time, I got my smell and taste back, and then it was done. It almost felt like, ‘Oh, cool, I had COVID, it wasn’t that bad, and now I have some antibodies, great.’ "
Kork went back to her life, assuming the experience had been a brief hurdle that had passed. She knows that before contracting the virus, her resting heart rate stayed around a healthy 65 beats per minute. She’s an avid hiker who works out five days a week, doesn’t smoke, and overall was in great shape — her doctor used to joke she was so healthy she was a boring patient to have. She even donated plasma for COVID-19 antibody research in November.
Then, several months later, she noticed her resting heart rate was higher than usual.
That racing heart rate never stopped — today, 10 months after first contracting COVID-19, she loses sleep because her resting heart rate is, on average, 20 beats per minute higher than that — so high, she said, it makes her feel like she’s "going to have a heart attack all the time."
"The worst is when I’m trying to go to sleep at night, it literally feels like my heart’s beating out of my chest," she said.
Kork is part of a growing community of people who have contracted COVID-19, appeared to completely recover, then are hit with long-haul symptoms of the virus later. While the situation may seem unique to some, it’s beginning to appear in more studies as more research into the virus is done.
A study published by the journal JAMA Network Open in February found that while more research was needed, their findings indicated that "the health consequences of COVID-19 extend far beyond acute infection, even among those who experience mild illness."
"People who have been saying, ‘If I get COVID I’ll be fine, because I’m young and healthy’ — I’m like, ‘Yeah, you would think, you would totally think you’d be fine,’ " Kork said.
"And you might be, absolutely. But you don’t know how COVID’s going to affect you in a year, and if your heart is going to be beating out of your chest in a year."
Last September, she had symptoms that she believed were caused by the smoky weather at the time: watery eyes, sneezing, typical symptoms for that time of year in that kind of weather.
She got tested for COVID-19 just to be safe, as her mother is immunocompromised. When she was told she tested positive three days later, she was in disbelief, until more common symptoms of the virus hit.
"I could not believe it. I was just shocked," she said. "And then later that day, after the nurse had called me, my smell and my taste disappeared completely. You could’ve been frying onions in front of my face and I wouldn’t have been able to smell them."
She was quick to get vaccinated this summer, calls herself a "very big believer in science," had no family members living in long-term care facilities, and considered herself lucky that she had no pre-existing lung conditions.
"I don’t think I was terribly worried about getting COVID, and I don’t think I was ever scared of it, I don’t think that’s how I am," she said.
At the time, she couldn’t have imagined where she is today. Her heart rate is higher than it should be based on her age and prior health, and workouts that were once no sweat for her have become such an ordeal that she was prescribed inhalers to keep up with them.
"For somebody my age, for me to be out of breath doing normal things, is absurd, really," she said. "It shouldn’t be like this."
Her doctor has recommended she take medication to stabilize her heart rate should it not go down on its own over the next few months, but it hasn’t shown any signs of slowing — she noted that her average heart rate last week was the worse it had been since last September.
"I hope this doesn’t last forever, but that’s the thing with COVID. It’s so new, we don’t know what it’s going to do," she said.
Now, she’s found community in people going through the same thing. A Facebook post she wrote in hopes of shedding light on an experience with COVID-19 not many had heard of has gained traction and she’s heard from others who suddenly were faced with long-haul COVID-19 after originally appearing to recover. She also has received multiple messages from people that ranged from blaming her symptoms on getting vaccinated to denying the virus’ existence completely, which in part only made her transparency seem more necessary — she hopes that her story influences those still on the fence.
"You might get COVID and have little to no problems with the actual COVID virus at the beginning," she said.
"But you don’t know what it’s going to do in a year from now to you. You have no idea."
Malak Abas is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.