Stephe Lawson was diagnosed with COVID-19 in June, but is still recovering from its wrath.
Lawson is employed at Honda in Alliston and is currently off work battling the lasting effects of the disease.
It was May 28, when he received a phone call from public health notifying him of a close contact at work being diagnosed with COVID-19 and to get tested at the plant's on-site testing centre.
It was a Thursday when he did the nasal swab test, and was off work the Friday as he waited for the results.
Out of an abundance of caution, his wife Christie packed Lawson a bag to take up to the family trailer in Lake Dalrymple so he could quarantine. Their youngest daughter is only four, and has respiratory issues, so they didn't want to take any chances with her contracting the virus.
On Saturday, May 30 he received the phone call notifying him that his test result was negative.
"I felt pretty relieved because I felt pretty good," he said.
But by the evening of Sunday, May 31, Lawson wasn't feeling good at all.
His throat was sore and his head was full of pressure. He couldn't swallow, he had a high fever, and breathing was becoming difficult.
He knew right away something wasn't right, as he hadn't had a sore throat in 25 years, after having his tonsils removed.
"That was a big indicator for me that something was different," he said.
He also had a rash around his face, neck, chest, back and head which was unusual.
"It felt like I was burning," he said. "The fever was higher than the thermometer could register."
He immediately called the hospital in Orillia to get retested.
"They sent for me and brought me in, all the symptoms (of COVID) were there," he said. "They were all but certain that is what I was experiencing."
The hospital did a blood test and a nasal swab test just to be sure.
But the second nasal swab test resulted in another negative. It was the blood test that showed he was fighting a heavy viral infection.
He was swabbed again on June 3, when he did receive a positive test result.
"I was classified severe, which is scary because I've never felt that sick in my life and at times, I thought that was it, I wasn't going to make it," he said. "It's very very surreal, I've been around for half a century and I've been sick before...and nothing remotely close to what this was when it set in."
Lawson continued to stay at the trailer over the next five weeks, with frequent visits to the Orillia hospital for treatment of his symptoms and continuous testing. It wasn't until June 28 when he was considered 'recovered' after receiving two consecutive negative test results.
Although Lawson is considered 'recovered', he still continues to feel the effects of the illness today. He continues to go for regular visits with doctors and specialists.
He says his blood pressure is high and his heart rate has increased. His lungs are damaged, working at 40-per-cent capacity and is still fighting off infections in his lungs, ears and glands.
Lawson noted prior to being diagnosed with COVID-19, he was already taking medications for his hereditary heart issues, and had scars on his lungs from two serious pneumonia infections from when he was younger.
According to the World Health Organization, most people (about 80 per cent) recover from the disease without needing hospital treatment and around one out of every five people who gets COVID-19 becomes seriously ill and develops difficulty breathing.
Older people, and those with underlying medical problems like high blood pressure, heart and lung problems, diabetes, or cancer, are at higher risk of developing serious illness but anyone can catch COVID-19 and become seriously ill.
"I do have underlying issues," said Lawson. "But they were under control for years with medication and monitoring."
"My lungs took a beating, my heart's enlarged," he shared, noting he is meeting with a lung surgeon specialist soon to figure out the next steps with managing the illness.
The other week he was prescribed two new antibiotics to take simultaneously, as well as a higher dose of heart medication.
In Ontario, COVID cases are reported in four categories: active, recovered, in hospital and deceased. But there's one category not included, and that's COVID-recovered patients still experiencing effects of the disease.
These patients, dubbed 'Long Haulers' claim to experience issues from the disease, even though they no longer test positive for the virus.
Lawson was looking for support from others with similar experiences, where he found a Facebook group, COVID Long Haulers Support Group Canada, started by Oakville resident Susie Goulding.
Goulding believes she caught COVID in March after going for a checkup at the local hospital, and has been sharing her story advocating for more transparency from the government on recovered cases.
"Recovered means to the government is that you get a negative test," she explained. "The government doesn't follow you afterwards, they don't know that you're living with debilitating symptoms, that you can't go back to work, that you're still sick as a dog."
Unlike Lawson, who received a positive test, Goulding was never officially diagnosed because of the restrictions on testing at the time.
"I was frustrated because I knew I had COVID," she said. What started off as a sore throat developed into more serious symptoms like loss of taste, a dry cough and shortness of breath. She wasn't able to get tested until June, at which point the test came back negative.
Because of her negative test result, doctors continued to tell her she never had COVID, and that she must have had a different virus. But Goulding is convinced she did have COVID, and still experiences brain fog today, often losing her train of thought mid-sentence, and at times having difficulty speaking.
"There's this whole other bracket of people besides dead and recovered, there's also the thousands of us that were never counted and then there are the Long Haulers," she said. "We're all completely messed up, we're not well."
When asked about 'long-haul' cases, the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit (SMDHU) said they were not in the position to comment about continuing symptoms after a person is no longer infectious and /or testing shows a person is negative for COVID.
Regarding recovered cases, the SMDHU did confirm under their mandate, to prevent and control the spread of COVID-19 – they do not continue to follow up and monitor cases once they release patients from isolation (once they are no longer infectious to others).
Goulding's Facebook group now has over 3,500 members, all with similar stories to hers and Lawson's.
Lawson says the biggest surprise for him after testing negative is the fact that the virus never really left him.
"It's not done, the infections in my lungs just won't go away," he said. "I've been on heavy antibiotics now for about 10 weeks...oxygen, steroid enhancers, inhalers."
He worries about reinfection, so he is being extra cautious, keeping his family at home with limited interactions.
"I basically live in a bubble, which is hard for me, I've never been so far away from people," he said. "But in some ways, it's given me an opportunity to reflect on what is more important in life."
What worries patients like Lawson and Goulding most is not knowing if things will ever improve, or if the conditions developed will be permanent. Lawson hopes to share his story to serve as a reminder of the seriousness of the disease.
"I don't want people to be fearful or live in fear, but understand reality, that it is real and you have to be careful and look out for one another," he said.
Despite the challenges, Lawson wakes up everyday with a positive mindset, knowing he has the support of his wife, two young daughters, his employer, his family doctor and the Orillia and RVH hospital staff.
"I just want to highlight the amazing job that our frontline workers are doing, because I've seen it first hand. Their life is on the line, they risk themselves to do what they do to help us all and I couldn't be more thankful."