'COVID long haulers': Marathon runner still feels COVID effects one year after diagnosis

A three-time marathon runner, Sara Buursma, was never afraid of going the distance.

But now, she feels like she's running a whole new marathon as a COVID-19 long hauler. 

"This is a marathon for my health. This is a marathon to get better," said Buursma.

In March of 2020, the now 37-year-old mom of three lost her taste and smell. In April, she was diagnosed with the coronavirus.

But months went on and Buursma, who was previously healthy and had no pre-existing health conditions, was still short of breath, nauseous, exhausted and had sporadic fevers.

So, she reached out for answers from doctors at Northwestern Medicine and became one of the first patients of the Northwestern Medicine Comprehensive COVID-19 Center.

"We think we were the second in the country to do this," said Dr. Charles Davidson, who leads the center.

The clinic, based at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, is essentially a one stop shop for COVID survivors who continue to have symptoms or get new ones months after being diagnosed.

They’re also known as COVID long haulers.

"There’s a lot we don’t know about the long haulers and what causes their symptoms. And so that is one reason to develop a consortium of individuals so that we can have weekly case conferences," said Dr. Davidson.

Physicians from across eight specialties, including cardiology, pulmonology, hematology and general internal medicine, collaborate on treating these patients. 


Patients also have access to social workers and transitional care.

"We’re trying to look at this in kind of a holistic way," said Dr. Davidson.

Dr. Davidson says about two thirds of patients so far have been women, and the average age is less than 50.

"We realized that many, many of these patients who were having these problems were never hospitalized. Only six percent were in the ICU," said Dr. Davidson.

Right now, Buursma sees four doctors for treatment, including Dr. Marc Sala, a pulmonary and critical care specialist. 

MORECDC finds women report worse side effects from COVID-19 vaccine than men

"For the most part, we’re able to make sure that she doesn’t have any irreversible problems in the lung, lung tissue and heart, and then help to medicate what we can," said Dr. Sala.

Doctors with the clinic have seen more than 500 patients, some of whom have fully recovered.

Buursma says with the help of the clinic, she now has more good days than bad.

She says her shortness of breath has improved with the help of an inhaler, so much so that she can finally start lightly jogging again.

She's already planning to cross the finish line of her next goal: Running the Chicago Marathon in 2022.