Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, Jenn Riha helped keep people safe by setting up testing tents.
She also was among the first to experience the effects it had emotionally and physically, and tested positive for the virus in March 2020.
Little did she know that nearly two years later, she still would be dealing with symptoms.
“Sometimes it feels like my heart is going to leap out of my chest, or I have brain fog, not able to remember a simple word … I still can’t smell most things,” said Riha, a former St. Luke’s nursing team leader.
Those lingering issues are not uncommon, which is why the St. Luke’s Clinic – COVID Recovery was created this summer to study provider-referred patients’ symptoms and try to further understand them, while a multi-disciplinary team can continue their care.
“Whenever the peak goes down, we won’t be done with COVID, and there will be people who had it who aren’t done with it,” said Dr. Jodie Donovan, the clinic’s medical director. “There are symptoms we hadn’t seen before in a virus …“Our goal is to study it and create a plan for treatment that could last the rest of their lives.”
Donovan’s team also includes Drs. James Whiteside (neurology), Andrew Reger (pulmonology), Vic Kadyan (rehab medicine), Cody Heiner (occupational medicine) and Michael Walton (psychiatry).
In the clinic’s first four months, 170 patients were seen, including Riha. All are referred by their providers.
“I know I won’t necessarily be cured, and I am so thankful it is there to help me, but I hope that maybe what they learn can help someone down the road,” Riha said.
“I’m very thankful they opened that clinic, have so many good people working together.”
As she began to ramp up work on the clinic, Donovan consulted Dr. Aaron Bunnell at the University of Washington, who set up one of the country’s first such programs for so-called “long haulers.” In an area like Idaho, between large universities in the Pacific Northwest and Utah, Donovan hopes the clinic can be a strong resource, able to help contribute and learn from those places, too.
“We kind of have our own mini university with St. Luke’s covering such a larger area, so it makes a lot of sense,” Donovan said.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic began in March 2020, St. Luke’s has successfully treated more than 16,000 patients with the novel coronavirus. Though it is unknown just how many people will experience long COVID, or PASC (Post-Acute Sequelae of SARS CoV-2 infection), Donovan said estimates vary between 10% and 30%. That’s a lot of people across the country, and right here in Idaho.
What has been noticeable to Donovan as the clinic has been up and running is the age of patients, many in their 20s, 30s and 40s.
She’s seen a professional athlete, a tech employee in his 30s once able to sit at a computer screen 12 hours a day who now can only work a few hours at a time despite an initially mild COVID case and a mom who has to open the windows when she cooks because everything smells like garbage and is only able to drink water and eat about a half-dozen things.
Riha can relate – she said she once accidentally left a pot roast cooking for 36 hours because she couldn’t smell it, but another time, when making pulled pork for her family, thought it smelled as if the dog had an accident in the house.
So, she celebrates the small moments she once took for granted.
“I never thought I’d get excited when I can smell something and have it smell like it should but that’s where we are,” Riha said.
Riha tested positive after helping to set up testing tents in the Wood River Valley in the early stages of the pandemic when that area was critically impacted. She was unable to return to work for nearly three months and was away from her family for most of that. She now carries an inhaler with her wherever she goes.
As part of her St. Luke’s Clinic – COVID Recovery treatment, Riha, now director of nursing at Terry Reilly Health Services, sees cardiac specialists, along with a speech therapist and an ear nose and throat specialist. “Someone should get something nice for” Dr. Alex Tanabe, she said, for referring her for care, adding that Dr. Donovan “is so phenomenal and engaged in the work.”
“There are people at St. Luke’s who truly care,” Riha said.
“At the clinic, they’re doing whatever they can to make whatever you’re living with as good as it can be.”
Dave Southorn works in the Communications and Marketing department at St. Luke's.