On St Stephen’s Day last year, Roma Joyce began to feel decidedly unwell. The 24-year-old student — who is from Galway but is living and studying in Dundalk, Co Louth — immediately suspected from her symptoms that she had contracted Covid-19.
I was going to go home for Christmas, but the numbers were getting so high it was a bit worrying, so I decided to stay in Dundalk and spend it with my boyfriend and his family,” she said.
“That week before Christmas, I really did nothing, I had all my shopping done. I went to the supermarket and worked one day. But I still woke up on Stephen’s Day and knew from the symptoms that it could be Covid.”
Roma’s worst fears were confirmed a couple of days later when her test came back positive.
“I pinched myself, I couldn’t believe it happened to me. It felt like the worst time to get Covid too. It was just after Christmas, cases were at an all-time high of around 8,000 and we were back in lockdown.”
Roma’s boyfriend and his family, whom she had just celebrated Christmas with, all tested negative. The creative media student went into isolation in the apartment she shared with her boyfriend for the next fortnight while she recovered. Her partner did not contract the virus.
Roma had a relatively typical Covid experience, in those pre-vaccine days. She felt unwell for around a fortnight before getting back to normal.
“I feel a lot worse now than when I actually had Covid. It was like a flu. I was lethargic and the worst was the congestion and sharp pains in my sinuses,” she said.
At the time Roma was working in a nursing home, but there is nothing to suggest she picked it up there, as there was no outbreak in her work setting.
“It could have been the supermarket, my apartment block, I really don’t know. I had a relatively average Covid experience. It didn’t hit me too hard at first. I didn’t need to go to hospital or anything close to it. One of the myths of long Covid is that you were very sick with the virus in the first place. But the truth is, there are no warning signs for long Covid.”
Roma soon returned to part-time work and resumed her studies online, due to lockdown. But she found she still wasn’t herself. She was getting burning pains in her chest after even a slight amount of exertion, so she went to her GP. It was the first of almost weekly visits to her doctor for a range of symptoms over the next couple of months, the most debilitating being aches in her joints, making it impossible to walk any distance.
“It was the first time I ever heard the term ‘long Covid’. I was put on steroids and inhalers. But I couldn’t get through a supermarket because of the pain in my joints and chest, and wearing a mask made breathing even more difficult.”
Roma was placed on waiting lists to see specialists, but because of waiting times it is mainly her “very attentive” GP who has treated her.
She got the vaccine in February, as she was still employed at a nursing home — even though she was signed off at the time as she was physically unable to work. Unfortunately she had a reaction to the vaccine, which exacerbated her symptoms.
“I am not in any way anti-vaccine. I had a reaction to a different vaccine as a child and I think also my immune system wasn’t able for it,” she said.
Within another couple of months, Roma had to leave work altogether, as she knew she had little chance of returning. What followed was a battle to secure the Covid unemployment benefit on the basis of ill-health, and trying to continue her studies.
Life remains a serious struggle for the 24-year-old student. She remains on waiting lists for long Covid clinics and has opted to go privately for one set of hospital tests, “because it’s the only choice for my health”.
Her problems range from serious chest issues to digestive problems, fatigue and skin issues. Roma’s family, friends and lecturers have been very supportive and she’s also found a lot of solace in a Facebook long Covid support group.
“A short walk is a struggle, it’s very hard to make it to college some days. I often have to go to bed in the middle of the day for a couple of hours. I don’t think people realise long Covid is such a threat. It’s sort of like having an auto-immune disease,” Roma said.
“The services are really not there for people like me with long Covid, it is just not being taken seriously. We need more awareness. I had no underlying health issues. If it can happen to me, it can happen to anyone.”
Visit our Covid-19 vaccine dashboard for updates on the roll out of the vaccination program and the rate of Coronavirus cases Ireland