ROCHESTER, Minn. — Stephaine Buffaloe came down with a 104-degree temperature on April 1, 2020. It would mark the beginning of her approximately 11-month-long journey with COVID-19 symptoms.
"They said, 'Oh, you'll get better. Everybody gets over this.' ...And I wasn't getting well," Buffaloe recalled. "I've had a sore throat for 11 months."
Buffaloe was hospitalized in Alabama, where she lives, and put on oxygen. She was eventually allowed to go home, but she says her symptoms persisted.
"The brain fog, the chronic fatigue, and muscle pain had been pretty consistent," she said. "I just felt like I was on this hamster wheel."
By fall 2020, she had had enough. In October, she and her husband took a nearly 16 hour drive to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester.
At Mayo, Buffaloe entered the COVID Activity Rehabilitation Program, or CARP. Formally launched in June 2020, CARP helps treat and study patients with what is known as post-COVID syndrome.
"At first we thought this was just a random occurrence...but as time went on, we saw more and more [COVID-19] patients who were having trouble getting back to their normal function," said Dr. Greg Vanichkachorn, known at Mayo as "Dr. Van."
Dr. Van works with patients in CARP, which he says has roughly 200 patients. Some of them, Dr. Van says, have had symptoms almost a year after testing positive for COVID-19.
"It's not the majority though, and they all are doing better than when they initially started their treatment," he said. "In the patients we have seen have long-term problems, the cognitive complaints seem to stick around the longest."
In CARP, patients are monitored during physical therapy. Their mental health is also evaluated.
Dr. Van says there is no relationship between pre-existing conditions and dealing with lingering COVID-19 symptoms. He says the majority of people in CARP actually had mild cases of COVID-19.
"Really, anybody can come down with this," he said.
Dr. Van says all CARP patients are getting better over time. Buffaloe is one of them, and now she has a message she wants to share.
"This is a very serious virus," she said. "And it's not just the people who are dying, who don't get over the acute portion of it. It's also the chronic part."
Dr. Van says Mayo Clinic recently started a second program to help people with post-COVID syndrome. CARP will focus on people dealing with symptoms up to three months after getting COVID-19, and the new program will help patients with symptoms lasting beyond that.