Emma: ‘Because of long covid, I lost friendships’

While studying Bestuurskunde (public administration), Emma (1999) contracted long covid. It turned her social life and way of studying completely upside down. ‘I was extremely shocked by the situation I suddenly found myself in.’

Beeld: Femke Koppe

‘In the summer of 2021, I tested positive for COVID-19. I had just finished my third year of Public Administration and would start my fourth after the summer. During the vacation period, I worked long hours at the Efteling. But because I had COVID-19, I stayed home for a week. Then I tested negative and so I resumed work.

‘I remember thinking, That’s that, I’m done with the coronavirus. But when I went back to work I collapsed, I really lost consciousness. Even though I realized something was wrong, I was quite surprised when the occupational health physician told me I had long covid.’

Young healthy girl

‘The occupational health physician sent me on to my general practitioner. There I received a stack of referral letters: for a physical therapist, occupational therapist, and dietician. I was shocked by the situation I suddenly found myself in. Long covid? I just wasn’t expecting that.

‘Meanwhile, I was getting puzzled reactions from all sorts of quarters: Huh, but you’re a young healthy girl, aren’t you? Or: You can’t tell at all in your case. That’s really annoying to hear, and besides, it’s exhausting to constantly have to explain what’s wrong with you.

‘I had to cancel more and more appointments because I was too tired or overstimulated. To my mind, that was just a vague, meaningless reason. Because what exactly does tired and overstimulated mean? Because I have much less energy, study friendships and part of my social life have gradually fallen away. I understand that, but it still hurts.’

Brain Fog

‘When I reported to the dean of students at the beginning of the 2021-2022 academic year, I had to make notes during our conversation, or I wouldn’t remember what we had discussed. I had brain fog, memory loss, loss of concentration, and suffered from overstimulation. You can’t really trust your brain anymore. I was also tired and cramped. If I walked up a flight of stairs I was completely exhausted afterwards, and cooking, at one point, I did only sitting down.

‘The dean asked if I might want to talk to a student psychologist and what she could arrange for me practically. For example, if I needed more time during exams, or if I wanted to sit in a separate room during exams. I hardly knew what was going on with me, so at the time I thought it wouldn’t be so bad. Now I do my exams in a smaller room.’

Financial implications

‘I knew I was going to be delayed in my studies and that there would be financial consequences. Together with the dean, I finally managed to get financial compensation from DUO. Of course, you have to prove that something is wrong, and you have to be able to provide a form filled out by your doctor, but it is very nice that now a (small) part of my study debt is waived. In that, for me, there is also part recognition of my situation.

Image: Femke Koppe

‘I think it’s important to tell my story because maybe there are more students with long covid or some other illness who don’t know what is possible in terms of arrangements and who they should go to. It is also important to report to a dean of students as soon as possible and not wait with that.’

Stimulus bomb

‘Studying with long covid means thinking ahead and making hard choices. Which course will I take, and which one won’t I? Which exam should I take and which one not yet? If I was studying for an exam, I had to empty my schedule the following week, so I had room to recover.

‘To study, I now use the pomodoro method. That means I study for 25 minutes and then take a five-minute break to rest. The trick is not to look at my phone during that break because, contrary to what I always thought, that is a real stimulus bomb.’

Important to be there

‘When I cycle to the university, I usually put noise canceling on my headphones. That way I keep the crowds out of my system. Cycling from home to the university is about twenty minutes. I had to factor that in as well because, after those twenty minutes, I arrived on campus physically completely wrecked. Therefore, I left home a lot earlier, so that once I arrived, I could regain my breath before going to a lecture.

‘Following lectures is still difficult. If people are talking a few rows away, I’m already distracted. Of course I don’t blame anyone for that, but it does cost me time and energy to refocus. When I take lectures digitally at home, I can pause when I need to, which is very good. Still, I find it important to be there physically as much as possible, even in seminars.’

Focus on what works

‘Because of long covid, I learned quite a bit about myself. I am now in the final phase of my Bachelor’s degree, but because of all the circumstances, I found out that I probably don’t want to continue with public administration after this. I’m working my fingers to the bone to get my Bachelor’s degree, and I don’t think I’ll be happy with a Master’s degree. It takes too much energy. Also to work within that direction later on. That is why I am considering a different, non-university path.

‘Accepting that this is happening to me has been quite a process. I know there is no point in getting angry with myself. Even though there are days when things really don’t go well, I try to look at what does work. And as crazy as it sounds, I know people with long covid who are worse off. Some, for example, have to learn to walk again.

‘I don’t mean this the wrong way, but these stories allow me to put my own situation into perspective to some extent. For a year, I have worked very hard physically and mentally on my rehabilitation process. I’m not there yet, but I’m on the right track.’

Emma is a fictitious name. Her real name is known to the editors.

This interview is part of a diptych on long covid. Next time, you’ll read the interview with a Public Administration student struggling with long-term coronavirus complaints.

Translated by Language Center, Riet Bettonviel

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