Individuals with long COVID may deal with symptoms ranging from fatigue, slurred speech, and vertigo to digestive difficulties, autoimmune conditions, and depression.
Some HCPs with long COVID have experienced medical gaslighting based on sex and race.
Doctors with long COVID who plan on returning to work can do so gradually, but this may require support from colleagues and managers.
“I don’t miss it.”
Those were the words of Karen A. Scott, MD, MPH, FACOG, when asked (in an interview for MDLinx) about her decision to retire in 2021.
Scott is one of many healthcare professionals who, due to long COVID, had to rethink their position in healthcare. Not only has the virus done a number on the well-being of HCPs; it’s also uncovered the flaws of the American healthcare system.
What long COVID looks like
If you have long COVID, you may already be familiar with some of the symptoms: fatigue, breathlessness, brain fog, and short-term memory loss.
According to the UK’s Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) 2022 report on working with long COVID, symptoms can also include chest pain, muscle and joint pain, headaches, sore throat, vertigo, and blood pressure changes.
But they don’t stop at physical symptoms, or neurological changes like the loss of taste or smell. Long COVID symptoms can surface in the form of depression and anxiety, too.
Those who contract COVID, develop symptoms during or after infection, and exhibit them for more than 12 weeks meet the criteria for long COVID—if the symptoms can’t be explained by an alternative diagnosis, as noted by CIPD.
This is where some HCPs with long COVID have faced major difficulties as patients in the healthcare system—especially when their caretakers didn’t believe them.
Medical gaslighting of women and BIPOC HCPs
Scott is an example of a Black female physician whose professional qualifications as an OB/GYN were of little help when she experienced her worst long COVID symptoms.
As she described it to MDLinx, excruciating pain and muscle spasms—and at one point, numbness in the right side of her body that caused her to fall down—led Scott to call an EMT and head to the ER. Despite her symptoms, most of the physicians who saw her assumed she was either drug-seeking or pregnant.
“I know what is necessary to be pregnant. I am not pregnant, ”Scott told a Black male ER nurse, who still ran a pregnancy test while she sat in pain.
“He ran the urine test in front of me, with his back to me,” she recalled, “taunting me until the test came up negative. He turned around and confirmed I was telling the truth.”
Scared of her rising pulse and blood pressure, Scott performed her own self-exams to make sure her cranial nerves stayed intact prior to a long-awaited MRI to determine whether she’d had a stroke. A White male doctor was skeptical about her concerns.
"He made fun of my neurological complaints."
— Karen A. Scott, MD, MPH, FACOG
“He created imaginary circles around his head as if to say I was crazy, did not have stroke-like symptoms, and was forcing him to order an MRI," she said. "It was horrible.”
Another HCP, Daria Oller, PT, DPT, ATC, was also surprised by the healthcare system’s inability to help her when long COVID symptoms surfaced.
"We’re not believed by our own colleagues or by other people, and it’s sadly very eye-opening."
— Daria Oller, PT, DPT, ATC
Oller, a tap-dancer and former runner, has to carefully plan out daily tasks, knowing that now she’s subject to “crash,” a term used by the chronically ill when their energy leaves them. This, along with her other symptoms, has been wrongly attributed to anxiety and depression—even by other women physicians.
“I don’t have anxiety or depression,” Oller said. “It’s so frustrating.”
Looking to the future
Oller is still practicing, but not without health challenges. She’s preparing for a virtual international conference in September 2022 hosted by Long COVID Physio, a patient-led peer support group of physiotherapists which aims to educate and advocate for those living with long COVID and other chronic illnesses.
The two-day forum will explore various topics related to long COVID. “The audience will be researchers, clinicians, advocates, and patients,” Oller said, noting the importance of hearing from patients.
“This is going to be for everybody,” Oller said.
Scott’s experience, on the other hand, led to her retirement from medicine. She maintains her license and certification, but the traumas of gendered racism (combined medical racism and sexism) were too great for her to feel ethically sound participating in the system that perpetuates them.
“I feel like we’re undergoing a form of genocide,” she said, “because we are being killed by our own law enforcement system, our justice system, and our health system."
"Nobody’s coming to help us."
— Karen A. Scott, MD, MPH, FACOG
That’s why Scott founded Birthing Cultural Rigor, a firm dedicated to preserving the sanctity, safety, and quality of the birthing experience for Black mothers and gender-expansive individuals.
“My whole goal is to restore humanity and justice and to have a sense of accountability in the care that is provided to everybody, but particularly to structurally minoritized and marginalized communities, which usually end up being Black and Indigenous people,” she stated.
What this means for you
Long COVID can manifest as an array of symptoms such as shortness of breath, brain fog, chest pains, digestion issues, and depression. Some HCPs with long COVID have experienced medical gaslighting, with their treating physicians attributing their symptoms to mental illness, pregnancy, or addiction. If you’re living with long COVID and remain committed to a career in medicine, communicate early about your condition and ability to work. Don’t shy away from asking for support from colleagues and managers as you change your approach.