By Ed Roth
Nikki Matthews is exhausted, but you’d never know it.
A little over two years ago, the 47-year-old executive recruiter just finished visiting family and friends in the Poconos, heading to Florida. When she boarded the plane in Philadelphia, she felt fine, but by the time she landed in Orlando, she felt like she had been hit by a truck.
She spent the next three weeks completely bed-ridden with a fever and unable to breathe. “It was hellish,” said Nikki.
It wasn’t until February 2020 that she deduced she had COVID. Testing positive for antibodies confirmed her suspicion. It was early in the pandemic and the world was unfamiliar with all the effects of the virus.
Normally an extremely healthy person, Nikki felt different as she couldn’t bounce back quickly. She still lacked energy after many of the symptoms subsided. “I would normally walk or hike 7 to 8 miles on a Saturday, but I could barely even walk. I felt like a 90-year-old woman.”
Convinced she got it again in February and December of 2021, the Pennsylvania native was down and out, with her respiratory system working overtime. People would tell her she was young, healthy, and in great shape, so something else could be the culprit.“ All of this started after my mother died in May 2019, and many close to me assumed much of this was emotional, but this felt very different.”
As her maladies developed, so did the medical community’s understanding of people with Long COVID (aka long-haulers), when symptoms persist for more than four weeks. A nurse practitioner suggested a bacterial infection brought on by COVID related to her breathing trouble, leading to double pneumonia. At this point Nikki realized she needed to go inside herself to diminish her fatigue. That’s when she rediscovered yoga.
Nikki grew up on the East Coast with a very happy childhood, spending much of her time in nature, boating and camping. Even before pursuing her B.A. in Communications from Kutztown University, she got involved with the practice/philosophy for inner peace and balance that would last throughout her life.
She joined one of the largest yoga communities in the country and began to understand the fundamental underpinnings of her attention deficit disorder (ADD). By 18, she taught yoga, fitness kickboxing, and Pilates. Within a few years, she became National Sales Manager for the Himalayan Institute, earning a status of 200-hour specialist.
In 2006, her father died, and she migrated to Arizona. “It was time for a new way of life and thinking, especially about loss and grief,” she says. “This is when I developed a deeper appreciation of the mental aspects of yoga.”
Nikki explains, “Most people associate yoga with physical activities that incorporate different poses. That’s Asana. However, Shiv Asana helps me maintain balance, meditation, and relaxation with my physical side.” Yoga became a daily ritual as she learned to take control of her own health. “I was always into holistic medicine and consider it the backbone of my healing.”
After her third bout of COVID, Nikki still struggled to regain energy. Her adrenals felt drained, and brain fog left her unable to think clearly. “I would do things that weren’t me, like put laundry detergent in the refrigerator. I wasn’t present; it was like my brain wasn’t firing correctly,” said Nikki. “Coping with the loss of both of my parents definitely led to depression and stress, but this was like chatter in my brain – I call it the monkey mind.”
To combat the scattered sensation, she forced herself to be more deliberate, slow down, and think more. “I learned to say things out loud as a way of reinforcing my memory, things like ‘here are my sunglasses, here are my keys.’ I developed routines around just about everything.”
Carrie Collins-Fadell, CEO of the Brain Injury Alliance of Arizona, says it’s a reality that life does not bounce back to normal for some people with COVID, especially the earlier variants and COVID pneumonia. Carrie herself experienced a loss of smell after a bout with a respiratory illness in March of 2020 that she believes could have been COVID. “It’s hard to see some Long-COVID survivors with cognitive challenges have difficulties just like those with brain injuries have had for years in navigating healthcare and community-based programs and systems,” said Carrie. “We really need to band together and address the systemic system fails for everyone with long or short-term cognitive impairment, regardless of the cause.”
As for Nikki, she continues to practice Asana and Shiv Asana to maintain balance and battle the fatigue and changes in the brain that dog her. “The physical is only one part,” said Nikki. “I actually made meditation and relaxation my number one priority, since I could no longer push to boost my energy. This helps reduce my angst wondering if this is my new normal and ‘will I always be sick?’”
“You know your body better than anybody else,” she adds. “The more you’re in touch with your mind and body, the better you can heal yourself. You should also explore holistic practitioners for a ‘whole person’ approach, then make your own decisions.”
Support is key for long-haulers and can come from many sources. In addition to online and in-person support groups, family and work should be welcome places to turn. Nikki is particularly grateful to her employer Govig and Associates for making accommodations as she heals.
Finally, she wants people to know that the fatigue is real and can’t just be wished away. A few months ago, she began to include Vinyasa Yoga into her routine three times a week. Often confused with “power yoga,” this continually changing series of poses is based on the philosophy that all is temporary as we move from one position to another, then leave: A perfect metaphor for how life unfolds and how we bring consciousness to each moment.
Ed Roth is a producer, editor, and writer who lives in Scottsdale, Arizona.