How We Live: A COVID-19 ‘long hauler’ hopes his story offers a cautionary tale

Updated: Nov. 11, 2020 at 2:09 PM HST
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HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - A self-described fitness enthusiast, George Ma spent half his life in a gym or dojo before he eventually started running his own personal training business in Honolulu. He rarely ever got sick — until this summer.

He started feeling run down, then came the fever, muscle aches, dry cough, tight chest and trouble breathing. Thinking it was just the flu, he figured he could just shake it off. But after nine days of battling the symptoms at home, he decided to finally go to the hospital.

Turns out, it was COVID-19.

“It was so damaging that at one point, I was using a walker to get around in the hospital,” the 46-year-old said. “My resting heart rate went from a young healthy adult to a resting heart rate of a deconditioned 80-year-old male.”

He was on a breathing tube at the hospital for nearly two weeks.

Months later, Ma is still suffering lingering effects from the disease, from chronic fatigue to shortness of breath to short-term memory loss. He’s considered a “long hauler,” meaning he’s part of a group of COVID-19 survivors who continue to experience symptoms weeks, or even months, after contracting the disease — a mysterious result of the virus that’s stumping even doctors.

Ma says he is making some progress every day through therapy, but he believes sharing his experience and educating others is also a vital part of the healing process.

“I am slowly finding my way and becoming my own advocate and doing a lot of research, working with the medical community,” Ma said. “It’s been a slow process.”

To prepare for a recent interview, Ma took notes and referred to them often. Another lingering symptom of his bout with COVID-19: Short-term memory loss or “brain fog.”

One thing he doesn’t struggle to remember is his life before the pandemic.

In a word, he says, it was “great.”

As the owner of Lifestyle Fitness Training and Fitness Therapy Hawaii, Ma is also the only certified trainer in the state to work with people with Parkinson’s disease. On a typical work day before falling ill, he’d wake up at 3 a.m. and end at 8 p.m.

“I was always healthy and strong with no underlying health problems,” he said. In fact, he says he’s normally a “germaphobe,” always sanitizing and cleaning.

But in early July, before mask rules were enforced at gyms and it was widely known that the virus was airborne, Ma said he went to a friend’s gym to work out.

“I was a part of the first cluster, Hawaiian Airlines and gyms,” he said, adding that “I had gloves, I had everything. I just took off my mask, just for one hour and it just turned my life around.”

Not long after, he began to feel the symptoms.

“It happened so fast, like the virus tore through my body so fast,” Ma said.

He added that in hindsight, he should’ve gone to the hospital a lot sooner because there were a lot of signs — from his blood oxygen levels being very low to not being able to break the fever.

“Every day, I was battling something.”

When he kept getting worse, he decided to go to the hospital. That decision saved his life. He ended up being hospitalized at Straub Medical Center for 12 days.

Knowing the community needed to better understand the virus, Ma documented every step of his COVID-19 journey on Facebook, starting from when he tested positive.

While hospitalized, he received a triple drug combination of the antiviral remdesivir, an anti-inflammatory steroid and convalescent plasma.

When he thinks back to his early days of battling the virus, Ma said it was the worst he’d ever felt. At one point, it took everything out of him just to get up to go to the restroom.

The mental toll was no easier.

“Emotionally, the virus almost killed me, so now I get panic attacks because it’s similar to post traumatic syndrome, PTSD, but I am grateful to be alive, so I’m moving forward day by day,” he said.

And while Ma is doing better now, he’s far from fully recovered.

Once the picture of health, there are days when he has no motivation to work out. He still tires easily.

“I had chronic fatigue, I lost a lot of muscle. It tears up your body, it wrecks your body, so you have to give it some time,” Ma said. “I’m seeing a cardiologist for my heart, a pulmonologist for my lungs."

Ma has worked with so many Parkinson’s patients, including his dad, that he was surprised to see similar symptoms during his recovery. He even went to a neurologist to get checked out.

“A lot of the symptoms for the ‘long haulers,’ from chronic fatigue to neuropathy to resting tremors in the hand, it’s very similar to Parkinson’s, so there is no therapy program yet,” he said.

“Most of our medical doctors are still on the frontline fighting, so I’m just using what I’ve learned through Parkinson’s to work on myself until there is a treatment program for us long haulers.”

Not knowing when exactly he’ll be 100% again has taught Ma to adapt to change and to recognize that it is OK to slow down. Now he only takes one to two clients a day, every other day.

The rest of the time he’s working on his own therapy.

“I used to be always on a run, my mind’s going 100 miles per hour, especially being a business owner, so I just need to give myself a break, accept that new reality should come with a different level of expectation,” Ma said.

His priorities have instead shifted to helping the medical community and general public better understand the disease. Ma still continues to use social media to share his experiences and be a voice for COVID-19 survivors — a beacon of light for those who are struggling in the midst of the pandemic.

He hopes that his COVID-19 journey will offer a reminder of what people can do in this collective fight against the virus: wearing face masks and protective eyewear, social distancing and following the rules.

“Everything will get back to normal, but we just have to learn to live with this new reality, accept it, that’s the main thing, and not try to fight this virus through politics and religion, and just work on being more kind and having more compassion for your fellow neighbors, and taking care of your community, like how we should be doing in Hawaii.”

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