When Deb McDonnell went back to work this spring after being sick with the coronavirus, she noticed something was off.

"I was having trouble staying on task," McDonnell said. "I was kind of forgetting things, but I thought it was just because I had been out for so long and I just gotta get back into the swing."

But when weeks turned into months, McDonnell, a longtime ICU nurse, knew something was up.

"I think as it went on, I became more aware of my memory issues," she said. "I started saying things to myself in the rooms like, 'Focus on what you're doing. What's the matter with you?' You know, things like that."

McDonnell is a so-called COVID-19 longhauler — a person who experiences viral symptoms long after a positive diagnosis. Longhaulers face a range of neurological and physical issues because of the disease.

McDonnell's lingering symptoms are mainly neurological, including brain fog, memory loss, headaches and fatigue. Her 16-year-old daughter is also a COVID-19 longhauler and experiences many of the same symptoms as her mom.

"I was doing so badly that I think she was hiding some things," McDonnell said. "We had a talk a little while ago, just around Christmas, and she was telling me she was really struggling in school."

McDonnell is part of a longhauler clinic run by Dr. Zeina El-Chemali at Massachusetts General Hospital. El-Chemali said COVID-19 longhaulers need more support as they manage these longterm symptoms. Creating a safe space for them is key to their recovery — particularly for those who are frontline medical workers.

"As healthcare workers, we always put other people's well being and health in front of ours," El-Chemali said. "And so it is very important to have the system allow us, all of us as healthcare workers, to say 'You know what, something is wrong.' We need to put our health first.'"

Click on the audio player above to listen to the full episode.


Dr. Zeina El-Chemali - 1:57
Deb McDonnell - 16:48