ST PAUL, Minnesota — Around this time last year, Laura Sosalla was training for the Medtronic Twin Cities Marathon. The St. Paul woman was also dealing with vision loss associated with long COVID, something that continues to this day.
"I do feel like people with long COVID or debilitating symptoms, it's kind of not talked about or overlooked when the reality is I know that it changes people's lives," Sosalla said.
In November 2020, Sosalla was driving when struck with a headache unlike any other she had experienced before.
"I'm susceptible to migraines but it was nothing like a migraine. It was literally a hundred times worse," Sosalla recalled. "I was noticing these prisms were bursting and... I was getting tunnel vision. My vision was starting to go."
Sosalla went to the emergency room where doctors figured it was a rare migraine. But over the course of the next six days, Sosalla was back in the ER or urgent care two more times.
During this time, she tested positive for COVID-19.
"It was a game-changer. Then everyone was like, 'Oh, this is probably COVID.' Completely changed how they were approaching it," Sosalla said.
It hurt Sosalla to move her eyes and her vision went in and out of focus.
"It was almost like my eyes... had a little spinal cord injury," she recalled. "Then I have blepharospasms; so on top of it, they were... clenched shut and I was fighting against this incredible spasm to even open them [her eyes] a little bit."
In early 2021, Sosalla was declared legally blind. Over time, her vision has slowly improved. Interventions including migraine medications, steroid and anti-inflammatory eye drops, Botox, sleep, diet and category 4 sunglasses with an FL-41 filter to create darkness to help suppress her symptoms.
"Everything looks like an overexposed photograph," Sosalla said.
Now 39 years old, Sosalla said it's still unclear why she lost her vision. She is part of a National Institutes of Health long-term neurological impacts of COVID study.
"It being an inflammatory disease, there were some theories that maybe it inflamed my optic nerves," Sosalla said.
Dr. Todd Gothard, a HealthPartners ophthalmologist and cornea specialist, helps with Sosalla's treatment.
"It's very rare," Dr. Gothard said. "I think we have gained better insight into COVID in a lot of ways, but I think as your case testifies, there's still so many unknowns and there's so many of these fairly infrequent things but that can have a profound effect on somebody as far as their vision or their lifestyle."
Finding her stride
Running is one of the ways Sosalla helps manage her stress.
When she lost her vision, she also lost the ability to pursue her passions of running, working with horses and accessing the wilderness.
"Running was the easiest to re-attain," Sosalla said.
Sosalla decided she wanted to run the Medtronic Twin Cities Marathon. She ran her first marathon at the age of 21.
"...Everything I love, I depend on other people to give me access to it. So that's a little bittersweet... I always ran independently. It was always just a really solitary thing for me," Sosalla said.
But it led Sosalla to forming friendships with a group of women.
She got connected with Rachael Bentley through United in Stride — an organization that connects visually impaired runners with guides.
"I started running in high school and ran through college and I just felt like I wanted to do something to sort of give back to the running community is why I signed up," Bentley said. "But then I just met Laura and just had another friend."
Bentley's sister, Natalie Elmore, joined in the training.
Also at the time, Laura Brennan was neighbors with Sosalla's parents. Sosalla was living with her parents while rehabbing from COVID, enrolled in Adjustment to Blindness training through MN State Services for the Blind. The pair met and decided to go for a run.
Then MPR News' Lindsay Guentzel heard Sosalla's story and wanted to report on it. She also started running with the group.
All four women have served as running guides for Sosalla, holding a tether to stay connected. They also communicate what is coming up, for example, a lip in the sidewalk. The group helped her cross the finish line at last year's marathon.
"I always viewed running as a solitary thing, as well, until I started running with Laura and the group of ladies," Brennan said.
Guentzel added, "We, in the last year, have seen each other through a lot together which is really interesting because most of us didn't know each other six months before that."
Sosalla spent the winter resting and finally grieved for everything she had been through since November 2020.
After a season of rest, Sosalla is ready to run again. This time, she is running the TC 10 Mile in October and plans on doing it with her group of friends.
"I'm not a huge runner and I'll only run if I have a reason and Laura is good enough reason for me," Elmore said.
Paying it Forward
Sosalla already has plans for the Twin Cities Marathon in 2023.
As a trauma therapist, she works solely with first responders. She has experienced firsthand how running can be healing.
Now she is working with some others to get a running group of first responders together. The hope would be to train for next year's marathon.
"The objectives for the first responder marathon training is to focus on using running together as a way to manage stress, heal from past traumas, combat the burnout and compassion fatigue from being chronically understaffed, overworked (while still struggling with the aftermath of COVID and social unrest), to overcome hardship, and coming together through a shared goal," Sosalla said.
If participants feel comfortable, it would also give them an opportunity to tell their story.
"I think a surprise from the marathon was how much that contributed to my own healing to have the opportunity to tell my story and I had no idea it was going to be as healing as it was," Sosalla said.
Sosalla is working with Darcy Berard from the Running Room and Johnny Surprise with Blue Peak.
Those interested in joining the running group can contact Surprise at email@example.com.
Throughout Sosalla's journey, she's found strength in numbers.
"We have to depend on each other in order to excel or grow or challenge ourselves," Sosalla said.
She went on to say about her running group, "We all just kind of came together. We're sort of this hodge-podge of people and running is... the common denominator. Yeah, they've absolutely turned into like sisters."
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