For a kindergarten teacher and a local business owner, life will never be the same.
Cathi Aguilera and Jared Diamond have “long COVID,” or post-acute COVID-19. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines the condition as new, returning, or ongoing health problems that occur four or more weeks after an individual is first infected with the virus.
One study found that about 43% of recovered COVID patients develop any number of short- and long-term effects as a result of the virus. After severe bouts with COVID-19 in the early stages of the pandemic, both Aguilera and Diamond suffer from what doctors say will now be lifelong health issues, including major organ damage.
After the San Antonio Report wrote about their respective battles with the coronavirus, we followed up to find out what their lives are like today. They tire more easily and rely on medication. They are grateful for another chance to live. And they are frustrated.
Hospital’s very first patient
“I tell people I’m like Harry Potter — ‘the boy who lived,’” said Jared Diamond.
The owner of an Army surplus store contracted coronavirus while traveling with his family in March 2020. Within a week of returning home, Diamond was struggling to breathe and was admitted to Methodist Hospital Stone Oak as the facility’s first patient admitted with the virus.
He spent 25 days there.
After being discharged, he underwent physical therapy three times a week for three months to reclaim his balance and rebuild the muscle mass he had lost while lying in a hospital bed. Though his lungs have recovered, Diamond has not returned to the good health he enjoyed before he fell ill.
He now takes five different medicines for COVID-related heart problems and copes with nerve pain in his hands and feet whenever he lies down to rest. His hands are also sensitive to cold and there are times when he’s too sore and stiff to get out of bed.
Almost two years after his initial illness, he said, “I still have some days where I’m just exhausted.”
Diamond said he doesn’t really talk about it with most people. “To me, it’s more important to move forward.” So he walks about 15 miles a week and goes to work every day. He’s back to being a regular blood donor.
Diamond says he feels fortunate — and so does his wife. In a text message, she said despite the fact he’s a “long hauler,” she’s “so thankful he is alive!”
“It’s made me think about life from a different perspective,” he said. “I’m a little bit happier and content with my life. I think I appreciate what I have a little bit more.”
The experience also inspired his daughter to start a nonprofit to help people recovering from COVID-19, and motivated a friend to begin a walking program to improve his health and fitness.
Others tell Diamond that knowing his story made them want to get the COVID-19 vaccine.
In Bexar County, about 73% of people are fully vaccinated, according to Metro Health, but the virus continues to spread, with a seven-day average of nearly 6,000 new cases reported on Thursday. And while the omicron variant appears to cause less severe symptoms in some cases, hospitalizations are also rising to levels seen during the last two peaks.
So “who the heck wants to take a chance?” Diamond asked.
When he hears people say they don’t like to wear a face mask — a precaution against the virus recommended by the CDC — he is incredulous.
“I don’t like wearing a mask, either, [and] I don’t know a single person who does like wearing a mask, but we still wear it,” Diamond said. “And it’s kind of selfish not to wear it, because it’s for other people’s protection.”
Since Diamond’s bout with the virus almost two years ago, his family has managed to avoid infection. It is “mind-boggling” to him that the pandemic is still going at the start of 2022.
“It really has been a journey,” he said. “There are days I wish I felt a lot better. But I feel pretty good.”
Giving birth in the ICU
Raya was already a month old when Cathi Aguilera met her daughter for the first time. The newborn gave her the will to live.
But it would be several months more before the new mother would be strong enough to hold and care for her baby.
Aguilera contracted the virus that causes COVID-19 in October 2020 when she was six months into a high-risk pregnancy. Raya was delivered in the intensive care unit 11 weeks early, but Aguilera continued to decline. She became comatose and was intubated with one machine oxygenating her blood and another doing the work of her failing kidneys.
The team of nurses who cared for her felt she was giving up. Her family began planning a funeral. When mother and daughter were finally reunited at the hospital bedside in December, Aguilera mustered the strength and will to fight back.
But her illness didn’t end with her discharge.
At home, she underwent physical therapy to learn to walk again and regain her strength. She received dialysis treatments for her nonfunctioning kidneys. Aguilera’s mother had already quit her job and taken over Raya’s care full time.
Aguilera said she struggled emotionally with how much of her daughter’s first months she had missed and that she could barely hold or feed the baby. “I still didn’t feel like I was a mom yet because I couldn’t do all the things that I needed to do, or I didn’t feel like I could,” she said.
Those feelings got in the way of their bonding, she said, until the day she gave herself a pep talk.
“I can’t be like that anymore because that time’s already passed,” she told herself. “As soon as it felt like I could assume [the mom] role, I did, and I feel like I’m doing the best that I can.”
Today, Raya is a healthy toddler and though she’s about to start walking, mother and daughter are “attached at the hip,” Aguilera said.
The single mother also pushed herself to recover, exercising daily, so she would be strong enough to return to the classroom. In August, Aguilera accepted a teaching job at Hidden Cove Elementary in the Southwest Independent School District. Her mother cares for Raya at home.
Most of Aguilera’s kindergarten students who are eligible for the vaccine are not vaccinated against the virus that nearly took her life.
Aguilera sees that as a concern, but she’s not scared, she said. “I’m vaccinated, I’m boosted, I’m not pregnant. I’m not as vulnerable as I was.”
But her “teacher voice” isn’t as strong as it once was, and when she gets tired during the day, she has to direct the kids to a quiet activity. On weekends, she’s a homebody — as much to rest as to protect young Raya from the virus.
Aguilera said she doesn’t understand why some people choose not to be vaccinated to help stop the virus’s spread.
“Maybe I never will because they won’t ever know what I went through,” she said. “They’ll never be in that hospital bed for four months. But why would you want that proof?”
She said she also remembers the doctors and nurses getting frustrated, and saw their tears, and for that reason wishes more people would heed the advice to get vaccinated.
The holidays have been an especially emotional time for Aguilera, who realized she doesn’t recall anything about her daughter’s first Christmas in 2020. As she helped Raya open gifts this year, she was grateful.
“I was just thinking that I’m just really glad that everything worked out for me because I get to see this now,” Aguilera said. “It could have gone a totally different way and I was just really happy about that.”
As Aguilera and Diamond continue on their roads to recovery, researchers are still studying long COVID and what it means for life expectancy.
Meanwhile, the subject pool grows. As of mid-October, two months before the highly infectious omicron variant appeared in the U.S., globally more than 100 million people had experienced lingering health concerns or were still reporting problems following a COVID-19 infection.