CHICAGO — Sotiria Tejeda once ran marathons. But after getting sick with coronavirus, the 22-year-old could barely walk for more than a year.
Now, Tejeda is finally finding victories again: She’s been able to go for strolls on the beach.
Those walks aren’t accompanied by people cheering or excitement at the finish line, like there was when Tejeda ran marathons and 5Ks. But being able to walk — one foot in front of the other, sand under her toes — means the world to the young Mount Greenwood woman.
Though Tejeda was athletic, young and healthy, her body was devastated when she caught COVID-19 in March 2020. Her symptoms lingered for more than a year: difficulty breathing, constant exhaustion, recurring fevers. She’d get sick to her stomach. She couldn’t smell or taste.
This April, that began to change. Tejeda’s been working with doctors on her long COVID symptoms, but her recovery accelerated after she received her second dose of a vaccine.
The recurring fevers and headaches — disappeared. She no longer naps nonstop. She can even taste and smell again.
“The quality of life, it’s back to 2019,” Tejeda said. “Which is wonderful, because I was really scared that it would stay like 2020. I didn’t know if I’d feel better. I didn’t know if I’d get better.
“It’s really nice to be able to go out with friends, go shopping, go to the beach — live like a normal person.”
About 10-30 percent of people who have had COVID-19 may develop long-term health issues, according to the National Institutes of Health. These people are sometimes called “long-haulers” or are said to have long COVID or post-COVID.
There have been many anecdotes of vaccinations helping longhaulers. Dr. Daniel Griffin, chief of infectious disease at ProHealth, told CNN as many as 40 percent of his long COVID patients have felt better after getting vaccinated. He and other experts have theorized the vaccinations could help people who couldn’t “clear” the virus finally make a robust immune response, driving out their symptoms.
But more research is needed on how getting vaccinated can affect people with post-COVID conditions, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Tejeda is confident the vaccines have changed her life. She once thought COVID had effectively ended her life: confining her to bed, ending her love of playing sports and dashing her dreams of pursuing a career and having children.
Now, she’s beginning to feel something different: hope.
Months Of COVID Symptoms
COVID-19 hit Tejeda in the early days of the pandemic. She can remember preparing to participate in 2020’s Shamrock Shuffle when she first hear rumblings of the pandemic. She wondered if the run would get canceled.
Then Tejeda, 21 at the time and without underlying conditions, got sick in early March. Her doctors told her it was likely coronavirus, though her illness came in the days before testing was widespread.
Tejeda said her illness was relatively mild, and she “recovered,” but her COVID-19 symptoms never left.
Tejeda quarantined for 84 days, as she had recurring fevers. For months, she couldn’t smell or taste right. She felt pain throughout her body and lost her appetite.
The worst were the breathing problems and exhaustion. Tejeda, constantly tired, took multiple naps each day. She could barely move out of bed — if she went to lay down for five minutes, it could turn into six hours of resting. She never had the energy or breathing ability for walks. She had to start using an inhaler.
Tejeda first spoke to Block Club in October, when she’d been struggling with her long COVID symptoms for months. She said she was deeply worried she’d never be able to fulfill her lifelong dreams of pursuing a career and becoming a mother.
But even smaller, daily victories eluded her.
“I want to walk again, and it’s like I can’t,” Tejeda said. “That would be a really great day, really, to go for a walk again.”
As the months went on, and the symptoms persisted, Tejeda looked forward to getting vaccinated to prevent future illnesses — but she feared her life was forever changed.
“I feel like I have just lost freedom,” Tejeda said in January, when she was still deeply sick. “I used to wake up in the morning and it would be like, ‘What do I want to do with my day? Where do I want to go?’ Just knowing that I could do it.
“Now I wake up in the morning, usually in pain and usually having broken a fever during the night. And it just feels like I am chained up by this virus still. I would like the freedom of health and the freedom of being able to go out and know that it’s safe.”
‘A Work In Progress’
The changes started this spring.
On March 23 — a little more than a year after Tejeda got sick with COVID-19 — she got her first shot of the Pfizer vaccine. Within a week, her symptoms started to improve. They were small changes, but after a year of sickness, she noticed. And Tejeda got her second shot on April 13.
Ten days later, she could move again.
“I just got all my energy back, and I’ve been out every single day since,” she said. “It is wonderful. I actually walked 3 miles Downtown about a month ago, a couple weeks ago. That was pretty wonderful.
“I’ve been back to walking. I’ve been playing golf. I just played beach volleyball the other day. I swam. So, it’s pretty great, and I do think it has a lot to do with the vaccine.”
In April, Tejeda also started seeing a team of specialists — doctors for her brain, stomach and heart and lungs — who have worked with her on breathing exercises and provided medications to manage or do away with her other lingering symptoms.
Tejeda was giddy and giggling as she relayed the changes: The fevers are gone. The headaches, the stomach problems, the constant naps — gone, gone, gone.
Tejeda’s smell and taste even returned in full about two weeks ago, she said.
“I think it came at the perfect time because I had a lot of Fourth of July parties, so I could smell the barbecue, which was wonderful,” she said. “Everybody’s really happy that I’m basically recovered, and they’re also incredibly supportive still.”
Now, Tejeda’s last major obstacle is healing her lungs.
The 22-year-old’s breathing hasn’t returned to form. A specialist told Tejeda he could hear damage in her lungs and suspects she got viral pneumonia when she had COVID-19, she said. Part of her left lung has partially collapsed, she said, and she has to take a pulmonary medication daily.
Tejeda is doing breathing exercises in hopes she can “reopen” her lung, get off the medication and rebuild her breathing ability.
Tejeda’s improvement means she can now walk up the stairs, she said. But she hasn’t been cleared to do some of her most-beloved sports, like tennis and jogging.
“The breathing, it’s still a work in progress,” she said. “In terms of jogging or running, I think that the lung is gonna have to open up all the way for me to do that again.”
‘It Will Save Your Life’
As Tejeda’s health has improved, so has her quality of life: She visits the beach frequently for walks. She’s gone to a Cubs game, seen loved ones — she even managed to stay awake until midnight.
“I do think I’m on track to lead a normal life,” she said. “I would say that I’m not very concerned that this will impact me long term like I was.”
The changes have Tejeda once again imagining a long, healthy life. She’s nearly finished with real estate school, and she’s excited to pursue that career. “And I still want to have kids. So, yes, my kids!” she said, laughing, this week.
Tejeda is still on a lot of medications, she said, and doctors aren’t sure when she can stop using them. But if she thinks of a year from now — anything is once again possible.
“Health-wise, I would hope that I would be running. That would be great,” she said. “Living. I just want to be still living like how I am recently a year from now. That would be great, just to keep up like this.”
Tejeda said she credits most of her recovery to getting fully vaccinated, and she’s encouraging others to get their shots.
“I would say get vaccinated. Please, take the vaccine, because it is a lifesaver,” she said. “And if you have long COVID, I know that some people are hesitant or maybe a little frightened to take the vaccine; they think they might get worse.
“I would just say, from my own experience, I would definitely suggest taking the vaccine. It will save your life. It will bring your life to what it was before.”
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