In the middle of the night, alone in the guest bedroom, Brad Kubat ran through his list of things to take care of before he dies.
“I was honestly scared for my life,” said Kubat, recalling the months of persistent COVID-19 symptoms. Things got so bad for Kubat, that the 52-year-old checked the status of his life insurance policy. “I really believed I was going to die.”
Kubat is likely of the first people in southern Minnesota to contract the coronavirus in early 2020, though he didn’t know it at the time. Because little information about the virus that ignited a worldwide pandemic was available, Kubat, who became extremely ill following New Year's Day 2020, he assumed he'd just shake it off.
Fourteen months later, Kubat said he finally feels he's on the road to true recovery, one of the many “long-hauler” patients the virus has left in its wake. While slightly more than 1% of COVID-19 patients in Minnesota have died due to complications related to the virus, the number of long-haulers — a term used for patients suffering long-term effects from COVID-19 — like Kubat is still unknown.
Doctors Brian Bunkers and Robert Albright with Mayo Clinic Health System said there is still much to learn about COVID-19, especially when it comes to long-haulers and what can be done to relieve their ongoing symptoms.
“We haven’t been able to identify what risk factors might contribute to this percentage of patients with more severe and more sustained symptoms,” said Bunkers, CEO and family physician at Mayo Clinic Health System in Owatonna. Bunkers said he's seen ongoing symptoms of fatigue, loss of taste and smell for up to six months or more and respiratory issues in patients who would be considered long-haulers.
Kubat's checked off the entire list.
A living nightmare
Growing up a resilient Steele County “farm boy," Kubat said he's never been one to really get sick. While he may get one cold a year, it was never anything Kubat couldn’t push through.
“Never in a million years would I have guessed I had [COVID-19],” Kubat said, noting that the virus was so new at the time he got sick that it felt more like folklore than an actual threat. “Honestly it never even came to my mind, I just kept loading up with Vitamin C and getting plenty of rest like I always do, but I just couldn’t shake it — it just kept nagging.”
For months, Kubat would be sent into coughing fits so violent that he had to work to keep from throwing up. Worse than the cough, however, was the difficulty breathing. It got to the point where he was taking eight puffs of an emergency inhaler just so he could get out of bed in the morning.
“I won’t go to the doctor unless I’m just about on my death bed,” Kubat said. By March 2020, Kubat was certain that's where he was headed. But by the time he made a doctor's appointment it had been almost two months since the virus had been in his system, and he tested negative. Tests and screenings for other health problems turned up negative, too, and Kubat was sent home with two weeks worth of antibiotics.
He thought he was feeling better, too, until he went to the family farm outside Owatonna to get ready for planting season.
“I had relapsed and it was worse than ever before,” Kubat said. “I remember being at the farm on a Friday and calling the doctor, but the earliest they could see me was Tuesday. I told them I wasn’t going to make it until Tuesday ….”
At the Emergency Department Kubat again tested negative for COVID-19. He was put on steroid therapy with an inhaler and pills. And while the symptoms got somewhat better, Kubat said the breathing, fatigue and mental fog have yet to fully improve.
“I’m still wheezing,” Kubat said, adding that a career in radio doesn't mix with coughing and wheezing every couple of minutes. “About six weeks ago I went in to talk to Dr. Bunkers and he just knew. I had COVID and I’m what he calls a long-hauler.”
Bunkers said that despite patients like Kubat being healthy and fit in every way, COVID-19 has long-lasting effects a percentage of patients.
“It really goes to what was their underlying lung capacity and function before the illness,” Bunkers said. “A very fit individual who exercises regularly could typically expect a lot from their body on demand, but a 10% change can be extremely symptomatic for them.”
Albright, who cares for dialysis patients in Rice and Steele counties, said COVID-19 damage is not only substantial in and of itself, but it opens up patients to the risk of developing secondary infections.
“These infections draw from bacteria versus the virus and the destruction they leave in their wake can be quite substantial,” Albright said, noting that patients with asthma or those prone to blood clots have seemed especially susceptible to long and difficult journeys back to good health. “A lot of factors really come in to play with these patients and it is tough to heal up from this.”
While Mayo has long-hauler clinic in Rochester, the doctors are both optimistic that this will spread to all Mayo clinics as the number of long-haulers is still unknown.
“We’re not sure what we’re going see: will there be 5% of COVID patients that are long-haulers? 0.5%? 0.05%? Or — God forbid — 20%?” Albright said. “We just don’t know yet. We are very fortunate to be in an area where Destination Medical Center is right there, doing research and developing the best new therapies to be disseminated out to clinics fast – but we just don’t know.”
Bunkers said the uncertainty has amplified the fear in some patients, especially when it comes to difficulties breathing.
“When your oxygen is low it feels like you are suffocating and that creates a lot of anxiety — especially if you’re feeling like you’re continuing to worsen,” Bunkers said. “In my own practice, I have been telling my patients that they will not be going back to normal within a week or so — this is going to be a six to 12-month journey for them.”
For Kubat, just having an answer and being able to understand why he had been so sick has been enough for him to regain hope of recovery. While he isn’t about to climb Mt. Everest once his body completely heals up, Kubat said he’s looking forward.
“There were some of those days and nights that were so scary and all I could think about was how to take care of my family if I were gone,” Kubat said. “Now I’m not so scared, and I’ve been thinking of this 1971 Chevelle I’ve had in storage that I’ve been wanting to fix up and get on the road again. That’s my Everest.”