Uni students are going through hell trying to do their degrees with long Covid symptoms
‘I’ve never been closer to dropping out, but Covid has taken so much from me already’
When Sam turned up at his student house in Nottingham in September, he knew this year of uni would be a little different. No clubs, online lectures and the rule of six would make university life pretty unrecognisable, but Sam, like many other students unpacking their bags ready for term one, was willing to work with it. Then he got Covid. For two weeks he isolated whilst experiencing the wide range of symptoms Covid has to offer: a high temperature and fever, difficulty breathing, insomnia, muscular spams, night sweats, dizziness, incapacitating fatigue, migraines, a dry cough, nausea and gastrointestinal issues. The isolation period passed but Sam’s symptoms did not.
Just three weeks into his final university year, Sam was hit with the effects of long Covid. He has persisting severe fatigue, insomnia, shortness of breath, tinnitus, migraines, is frequently dizzy and most worryingly suffers greatly impaired cognitive functioning (referred to by some other long covid sufferers as “brain fog”).
“I am lucky if I am able to focus and cognitively function at the level required to study for two hours,” he told The Tab. Sam used to be an active person and enjoyed exercise, but now in order to function and complete parts of his degree, he cannot exercise at all. “The long Covid symptoms are intensified whenever exertion both mentally or physically occurs (it’s known as ‘post-exertional malaise’) and I have experienced multiple relapses due to this where I felt I was feeling slightly better and tried to get back into some light exercise or tried to push myself to study like I used to before. Now I have to avoid all non-essential activities and exercise.” Because of this, the side effects of long Covid are taking a toll on more than just his body. His degree is suffering too, in the year it counts most.
The issue with long Covid is that it is so novel that it and its symptoms are still “poorly defined”, according to doctors. London-based A&E doctor, Dr Tariq Jenner told The Tab: “Long Covid involves multiple organ systems, with symptoms ranging from a persistent cough, shortness of breath and fatigue, to headache, depression and insomnia. Data shows that it affects people of a wide range of ages and ethnicities. Frustratingly, not enough data exists to properly define it.
“Anecdotally, I have seen patients present to emergency departments months after their initial COVID infection suffering with shortness of breath, lethargy, myalgia [muscle pain], headaches, and difficulty focusing or memory problems that are widely reported as ‘brain fog’.”
Dr Jenner explains that brain fog is just one of the symptoms of long Covid yet to be fully understood. “Patients have described ‘brain fog’ as not being able to recall telephone numbers, struggling to find the right word or phrase, forgetting basic things like where their keys are or what street they live on. It’s something that we’ve seen in patients with other viruses such as Lyme disease or Epstein Barr, so it’s not a particularly surprising complication of infection with such a debilitating virus as COVID, but we don’t understand its pathophysiology particularly well.”
Georgina, a third-year UWE student, also suffers from the elusive post-Covid “brain fog”. Georgina contracted Covid in March, way back at the start of the pandemic. It hit her hard. “I woke up feeling like I’d been run over. I was so exhausted I could barely lift my head up.
“This lasted for about a week and then I started to feel better. At the time the advice was to stay home for seven days and after 10 days I felt back to normal and went to the shops. That day my chest began to hurt. It was like a crushing weight had been placed on my sternum. The next day I was shivering and feverish again. Because I had now had another set of symptoms my GP prescribed me antibiotics over the phone just in case I had a chest infection. These didn’t help.”
This newest bout of Covid symptoms lasted for eight weeks. All of this happened during Georgina’s second year assessment period where she was meant to be sitting practical exams and handing in assignments. She was incredibly grateful for the no detriment policy that came into place at UWE last year, which she cites as the only thing that stopped her grades from taking “a real hit”. Georgina thanked God for the policy and waited for the next academic year to roll around, where she would be ready to restart her studies symptom-free.
This didn’t happen. Nine months have passed since Georgina first contracted Covid, and she still has symptoms so debilitating that she has had to agree to complete the final year of her university degree part-time. “I attempted to go back to university in October. I had discussed my problems with my teachers beforehand and they said they’d do what they could to accommodate me, however after only a week it was clear I couldn’t keep going to face-to-face classes. My degree requires 50 per cent face-to-face classes and I was told I couldn’t complete it from home so my only options were to suspend my studies and drop out or to study part-time for the next two years. I chose the latter, so am now studying two modules online from home and will have to go back next year, if I am well enough. All of my friends will have graduated without me. I can’t work and I can’t go back to university and there is nothing the doctors can do for me.”
Evie is another student who caught Covid back in March, during the first wave of the pandemic. Nine months on from the “absolute hell” that was her initial Covid experience, she still suffers from nausea, shortness of breath, fatigue and brain fog. She hasn’t even got her sense of smell back. Evie went through X-rays, blood tests, and two ECG’s before she was finally directed to a new Covid rehabilitation team. Even then, her uni performance is suffering. “Academically I’m struggling. My uni has tried to support me but even with extensions I’m still not doing well. I’ve actually emailed today to get an appointment with an advisor to discuss suspending my studies.”
And beyond that, there is the part of university life that matters most to students. The part that many people come to uni for in the first place. Seeing your mates, going to the pub and having parties. Since Covid, Evie says this part of her life has been “non-existent”.
“Socially outside of my one in-person class, I haven’t really socialised. I can count on one hand the times I’ve seen my friends this year. I can’t drink alcohol anymore as it gives me a temperature and sends my heart rate up. I don’t have the energy to talk to people for ages and I can’t really plan anything as I don’t know if I’m going to wake up and want to go back to sleep or wake up and be fine. It’s completely changed my life.”
Luckily, things are moving forward. The deployment of successful vaccines has meant research can now turn its attention to long Covid. The first academic study into long Covid in university students was published three weeks ago and NICE (The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence) will be publishing new long Covid guidelines next month. Students are also taking matters into their own hands. Sam decided to set up a support group for students suffering from long Covid so that on top of all the other symptoms people do not have to feel alone.
“There was a huge number of cases that spread through many of the UK university student communities back in September and October, so I created a support group in an attempt to publicly raise the issue and connect all the other students I suspect are out there struggling with long Covid. We exchange information about the recovery progress, studying challenges and most importantly how different universities around the UK are supporting students with this condition through their studies.”
Sam says that because of the impacts of long Covid being largely unknown, universities have been “unjust” in their support to those affected by it. He hopes the group will highlight that and force institutions to change, instead of allowing individual students to suffer. The group is small, just 20 so far, but it’s already having an impact. Posts seeking advice will receive paragraphs and paragraphs of comments with other students sharing their stories. On a post where one student considers dropping out, one commenter advises against it, saying: “I’ve never been closer to dropping out, but Covid has taken so much from me already.”
Georgina, who has become a member, appreciates the group for bringing young long Covid sufferers together. “It’s so good I have a space to share and discuss with people who are going through the same thing at the same point in their lives. I think the government and the media have pushed the idea that young, seemingly healthy people will be fine when that’s really not the case. You never know how your body is going to react. Most people will recover okay… but you just never know.”