Clinic offers hope to COVID-19 ‘long-hauler’ patients

There’s just one problem. The wait list is six-months long.

Hope and help are on the way for COVID-19 "long-haulers."
Hope and help are on the way for COVID-19 "long-haulers."

LAKELAND, Fla. – She is not just a doctor specializing in COVID-19 treatments, Dr. Kathleen Haggerty feels like a detective too.

“I am a medical detective,” Haggerty told News 6. “My job is to bring together all the different symptoms that my patients have and figure out why they are having them.”

It is part of the reason why Haggerty, an internist with the Watson Clinic in Lakeland, felt compelled to open Florida’s first clinic for ‘long-haulers’: people who catch COVID-19 and end up with mysterious, long-term side effects like chronic fatigue, brain fog, tremors and a racing heartbeat.

[TRENDING: Masks required at Disney World again | Orange County mayor declares state of emergency | Here’s when delta variant could peak in US]

“They go from living active, regular lives to barely being able to get out of bed in the morning,” Haggerty said.

For months, Haggerty has been on the case. Her doctor detective work has helped solve once-previously mysterious side effects for long-haulers.

“Pretty early on I discovered the tachycardia many people had was not really a problem with their heart. For most people, it was a problem with their brain setting their heart too fast. I remember pulling one of our neurologists, and holding him by the lapels and saying, ‘This is a nervous system problem!’, Haggerty said.

Haggerty attributes part of her success to the fact that, at her clinic, all long-COVID specialists work under the same roof, on the same patients.

A process that can quickly become chaotic for long-haulers forced to see specialists in different offices.

“Pulmonology wants to try this, but cardiology says no,” Sheryl Cyr said.

Cyr is a nurse who has been living with long-hauler side effects for more than a year and has yet to get a spot in a long-COVID clinic like Haggerty’s.

“My cardiologist told me that COVID has aged me, my body 20 years. I never had a cardiologist, a pulmonologist and a neurologist before, and now I got all of them.”

The side effects of chronic fatigue, tremors and an unstable heartbeat are so severe, they affect Cyr’s most basic tasks. “People look at me, and they think I look like a healthy person. They have no idea what struggles I have going on inside.”

Cyr desperately wants her body and her life to return to the way it was before COVID-19, but the wait list to get into long-COVID clinics is months long. “Everybody is booked,” Cyr said. “There are a whole lot of us.”

Recently, researchers at the University of Washington estimate one in three people may develop serious, long-term symptoms from COVID-19. “Some days are better than others. I have learned, on good days, to do what I can,” Cyr told News 6. “I do not think [my symptoms] have improved, but I think I tolerate it better.”

Haggerty herself is taking appointments for new patients, but the waitlist to get in is at least six-months out. “My appointments are very long. When a person comes to see me, it takes me a really long time to get to know them and to hear everything that they have been through, because they have been through a lot,” Haggerty said.

While it might seem unusual for one of Florida’s suburbs to open the first long-hauler clinic in the state, Haggerty says her inspiration to start a long-COVID clinic actually began decades years ago, when Haggerty was finishing up residency in Miami, and a different virus broke out.

“The HIV epidemic in Miami was half of our admissions,” said Haggerty. “This was a death sentence. It was horrible and tragic.”

“At the very end of residency, there was a new doctor that came on staff named Dr. Margaret Fischl. She opened a clinic for these poor patients to try and give them a longer-term kind of care, rather than just the hospital care.

“She was one of the moving forces that helped get AZT, the first AIDS drug on the market for people. I was not ready for that kind of a move back then, but now, it was a much different time in my life, and I was ready for this.”

LONG-COVID CLINICS IN FLORIDA:

*Know of a long-COVID clinic in Florida not included below? Email mbadcock@wkmg.com to have the clinic added to our list.*

The Watson Clinic, Lakeland

  • 863-680-7190
  • Dr. Kathleen Haggerty
  • Opened December 2020
  • At least 200 patients seen so far
  • 40 patients have been discharged

The Mayo Clinic, Jacksonville

Memorial Healthcare System, Miami

  • 954-276-5552
  • Opened May 2021
  • At least 75 patients seen so far

About the Author:

Award-winning investigative reporter Merris Badcock joined the News 6 team in October 2020. Merris is the recipient of a Regional Edward R. Murrow Award, a Suncoast Regional Emmy Award, four Suncoast Emmy Regional nominations, and two first-place Florida Association of Broadcast Journalists’ Awards.