Like many college students, Natalie Hakala spent spring semester of her senior year taking classes in her parent’s home in Eugene, Oregon. She followed all the lockdown regulations and did everything she could to keep herself and her family safe from COVID-19. As restrictions started to lift, she and some friends planned a camping trip to celebrate college graduation. The six campers thought they’d be protected if they stayed in their own tents and interacted outside.
“(Outdoors is) supposed to be a lot safer,” the 22-year-old told TODAY. “Everything seemed fine then a couple of days later my friend called and said, ‘Hey, I just tested positive for COVID.’”
On July 4, Hakala received a rapid COVID-19 test, and learned she had it too. The next day she lost her sense of smell. A few days later, she lost her sense of taste.
“I had body aches and then I got a fever. My fever broke a couple of days later and it looked like I was improving,” she said. “I decided to try to go for a run … I made it 100 yards, maybe, and I was having severe chest pains, super short of breath.”
Nearly three months later, Hakala still struggles with symptoms as a long-haul COVID-19 survivor.
“I can hold conversations better. I can walk a little bit farther than before. The chest pain is still there,” she said. “I still get headaches.”
From college runner to COVID-19 long-hauler
Hakala ran track and cross country throughout college at Concordia University in Irvine, California. When she returned to school after spring break, she was told that her upcoming weekend race wouldn’t have any spectators. Then the school canceled the race. Days later, the rest of the season was canceled.
“It seems very rushed to go from you have an entire season ahead of you to you have nothing,” she said. “It was a bit of a shock.”
Soon she learned classes would be online and that students had to return home.
“It was really weird,” she said. “I ended up completing my degree, which was really good.”
When she and her friends realized infection rates were low in Oregon, they thought a camping trip would be safe. After the trip, all but one person tested positive for COVID-19.
Following her positive test, Hakala isolated from her family by staying outside on an air mattress, only going inside while wearing a mask and gloves to use the bathroom and sleep. After two weeks, she thought the virus had run its course. So she tried to run. But she couldn’t.
“Instead (I) took a super long nap,” she said.
The next day, she tried to take it slower by walking and even that felt overwhelming.
“My heart rate was super high. It just felt like my heart was beating out of my chest,” Hakala said. “I was unable to climb stairs. I was getting short of breath really easily.”
But the symptoms continued increasing. Breathing felt tough, her chest pain intensified and she experienced terrible headaches.
“There was a sharp pain when I would breathe,” she said.
She visited the doctor at the end of July and was diagnosed with pneumonia. After recovering, she returned to work as a cast technician. Still, pushing herself through a day felt overwhelming.
“I was putting a cast on this lady’s arm and I was super exhausted,” she said. “I felt short of breath for 30 minutes.”
The symptoms continued until she woke one day in mid-August feeling as if “someone was sitting on my chest.” She thought she might improve, but when she didn’t she finally implored her mother to take her to the emergency room. Hakala’s oxygen saturation was at 79 when it should be between 95 and 100. Her heart rate skipped from 50 to 120 to 80 to 100. Doctors gave her oxygen and she finally felt some relief.
“I was like ‘Oh this is how it normally feels to breath. It’s easy. You don’t have to think about it,’” she said.
Hakala had costochondritis, inflammation of the rib cartilage, pericarditis, inflammation of the sac surrounding the heart, and pleurisy, inflammation of the tissue between the lungs and chest. Doctors gave her a beta blocker to help her irregular heart rate and something to treat her widespread inflammation. After leaving the hospital, she still felt sick.
“It felt like there was no improvement. I felt the same. I still wasn’t moving,” she said. “But then a couple of days ago, I had my very first good day.”
She made breakfast without getting winded, which felt “exciting.” Doctors remain unsure if she will have long-term health problems or she will continue improving.
“They’re just kind of guessing,” Hakala said. “They don’t think it’s going to be permanent heart and lung damage.”
Hope for the future
In the middle of being sick, she applied to physician assistant programs, which she hopes to pursue next year. At times, her lasting symptoms feel maddening.
“This is super frustrating. I don’t understand why this happened to me,” Hakala said. “All of my other friends have returned to normal.”
Then she recalled overcoming a career-ending injury early in college. She thought perhaps if she applied the same focus on small gains, her illness would feel manageable.
“I can only control what I can control,” she said. “Taking those small steps is something that isn’t strange to me. That is a benefit, my mentality.”
She urges people to social distance, wear masks and wash hands to slow the spread of COVID-19.
“You never think it will be you,” Hakala said. “Take those health risks seriously.”