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'What If I Don't Get Better': One Iowa Long-Hauler's Story Of Debilitating Illness

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Courtesy of the Salazar family
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Mateo Salazar and his daughter Lily. Mateo has been suffering from long COVID for four months, with symptoms that have become debilitating.

It’s not yet clear how many Iowans are suffering from long COVID, dealing with lingering symptoms of the illness for weeks or even months after they first tested positive. Early estimates suggest there could be thousands of these “long-haulers” in Iowa, which has one of the highest COVID-19 infection rates in the country. For some, the condition is completely debilitating. IPR’s Kate Payne spoke with long-hauler Mateo Salazar and his wife Mary, who live in Urbandale and are reckoning with the possibility that he may never recover.

Mateo Salazar first tested positive for COVID-19 on Nov. 10. Four months later, the father and insurance industry employee is a shadow of his former self, plagued by debilitating symptoms for which his doctors have few answers: a racking cough, chronic pain, “brain fog” that’s akin to dementia, and shortness of breath and fatigue so severe that even talking has become an exhausting ordeal.

In an interview with IPR, Mary Salazar helped share her husband’s story, giving Mateo time to catch his breath when extended answers left him winded.

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Courtesy of the Salazar Family
Four months into his illness, with few answers from doctors, Mateo Salazar and his family are reckoning with the possibility he may never recover from long COVID.

“I would say around December he started to have to stop halfway up the stairs to get upstairs or downstairs because he just didn't have the stamina to do it. And that's holding on to the railing and holding on to the wall and really pushing himself,” Mary said.

“He is in, I think, pretty constant pain. And no one really knows what it is,” she said. “Medically he doesn’t have anything that is diagnosable but he is a completely different person.”

In a voice deeply strained by his illness, his breathing belabored, Mateo said he has to stop himself from thinking too much about his unknown future, which may come to be defined by personal loss and physical suffering.

“There isn’t a doctor who can point to me and say, ‘you have this. And you’re going to feel that, that and that. And it will be done by then’,” Mateo said. “I sometimes have to consciously keep myself from thinking about the what ifs. What if I don’t get better?”

Mateo says that searching for lightness and humor during his illness has become essential in the fight to ward off despair.

“There was a point where I told her I needed her to continue making fun of me. I needed her to keep teasing me,” Mateo said, “because otherwise this would swallow me whole.”

“And then I think about the what ifs,” Mary said, “and that is really when it starts to bear down on me in a way that wants to swallow me whole as well. Because I think about our 11 year old.”

"I keep coming back to…I’m not in the hospital. I don’t have a tube down my throat. It’s slow and painful but I can walk up the stairs. I’m still home with my family. And I’m not dead. I’m not dead. So it could be worse."
-Mateo Salazar, COVID-19 long-hauler

Their daughter has become her father’s cheerleader, urging him on as he pulls himself up one step at a time.

“She can stand two stairs above me and applaud every time I get to the top of the stairs,” Mateo said, his voice breaking with emotion.

“That’s heavy for an 11 year old to carry,” Mary said. “It’s heavy for an 11 year old to watch this happen to her dad. It’s really heavy.”

There is no timeline for Mateo’s recovery, no prognosis for his illness, no clear answer of what exactly is wrong with him, besides, “that’s COVID”. As the pandemic rages on and untold numbers of Iowans continue to suffer from these lingering symptoms, Mateo says hope can be incredibly difficult to find.

But though his breathing is ragged, he is still breathing.

“I keep coming back to…I’m not in the hospital. I don’t have a tube down my throat. It’s slow and painful but I can walk up the stairs. I’m still home with my family,” he said, his voice thick with emotion.

“And I’m not dead,” Mateo said. “I’m not dead. So it could be worse.”