Life and Hearing after COVID-19 Infection
Two people report on their life and hearing after their Covid 19 infections: Hartmut Blum and Doncho Donchev – both became ill with Covid-19 during the first wave of the pandemic in spring 2020, and despite different progressions if the illness, both make it clear: We must not think that SARS-CoV-2 is harmless!
Do not underestimate COVID-19 infection!
When 60-year-old Hartmut Blum switches on the TV to one of these new Corona talk-shows and hears the increasing lockdown fatigue up to denial of the virus, he becomes really emotional. He is appalled. “How is it possible to be so selfish and have so little solidarity? I am constantly amazed at how irresponsible a whole lot of people are, especially when the facts are staring you in the face. It is so important that we all pull together. I know how dangerous the virus can be. And I wouldn’t want anyone to go through what I have been through!”
Lucimara Blum immediately suspected that her husband was suffering from the new corona virus when he became ill on 10th March 2020. “Such extreme symptoms for a ‘normal’ cold: Hartmut was cold. He was sweating and could hardly speak for croakiness. Everything hurt. To protect our children, we immediately decided that we would eat and sleep separately from now on. When there was no improvement the next day, I called the doctor.” He thought it was a flu infection. Only several strength-sapping days later, with breathing difficulty, was the man taken to the clinic. “The corona test confirmed there that my worries were well-founded”, says Lucimara Blum.
“Whilst Hartmut was fighting for his life in the specially set-up corona intensive care ward, we wrestled with the new disease at home. The only connection were the daily calls to the doctors in the clinic. I couldn’t do anything else for him– terrible!”
The war against the COVID-19 infection
The corona pandemic has gripped Europe since spring 2020. In many countries, doctors were and are being called upon to treat COVID patients. In mid-March, the infectiology doctors at the Military Medical Academy in Sofia, one of four specialist stations for COVID patients in the Bulgarian capital, were also being pushed to their capacity limits. Dr. Doncho Donchev, audiologist and CI specialist at the MMA registered as one of the first volunteers to reinforce the team.
Donchev has much experience of unusual working situations from deployment abroad as a military doctor in Georgia, Iraq, Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Slovenia, Romania and Macedonia as well as in the NATO operations headquarters in Naples, Italy. “A war on our own soil”, was the assessment of the situation by the lieutenant colonel, but as a trained paratrooper and diver, he felt fit and resilient: “I wasn’t afraid of getting infected. We worked in protective equipment and I also thought I am strong and healthy, what can the virus do to me?”
He did not see his wife and two daughters, 12 and 25 years old, during this time: he had rented himself an apartment so as not to endanger his family. He spent most of his time at the clinic: in the triage station for COVID patients and the isolation ward, at the “front between life and death” as he puts it. After a time, the workers at the clinic for infectious diseases were al exhausted, says Donchev, and because of the exhaustion, mistakes could easily happen, and the medical personnel could become infected. After one of the 24-hour shifts, Donchev too noticed the first symptoms in himself, and the routine COVID test gave a positive.
What remains when the COVID 19 infection is over…
“I was very much affected by having to leave the colleagues at the clinic in the lurch”, remembers Doncho Donchev, of his initial emotions after he was diagnosed with COVID 19. Even though he had not had any previous health problems, the illness did not then progress as smoothly as hoped. Donchev needed oxygen and lost 10 kilograms weight. He was finally over it on 26th May. He posted on Facebook, “I am finished– as COVID-doctor and as person infected and ill with COVID”.
After the summer, Donchev feels healthy again– or almost at least…: “When I walk upstairs, I notice that I get out of breath and after a few steps I am panting like I have just run a marathon.” For the keen hill walker, this is an unpleasant problem which he is trying to tackle with stamina and determined training.
For Hartmut Blum, the illness progressed much more dramatically. The last thing the 60-yearold VW engineer from Gifhorn in Germany can remember is the 16th of March 2020. Short of breath and with a high fever, he left his wife, two children and home in an ambulance towards the clinic. After that his memory fades. There followed an induced coma, transfer to the University clinic in Hanover, artificial prone ventilation, and then the return to the local hospital and some time in delirium.
Particularly at the start of the pandemic, around every second COVID 19 patient being ventilated ultimately succumbed to the virus. Hartmut Blum fortunately did not. “When I came round, it was incredibly loud. As a result of the delirium, I felt like I was in a helicopter. The noise prevented me from hearing what the doctors were saying”, explains the family father, who lost twelve kilograms in the 14 days. „I told the doctors about the noise and that I couldn’t hear anything anymore on the right.”
COVID-19 infection and other virus diseases can affect hearing!
Hartmut Blum is not the only COVID-19-Ptient to complain about tinnitus and sudden reduction of hearing. Several hospitals have made similar observations. The University Hospital of Manchester in Great Britain published an investigation about it in the summer. “We know that viruses like measles, mumps and meningitis can cause loss of hearing and corona viruses can affect the nerve. It is theoretically possible that COVID-19 could cause problems in the auditory system including in the middle ear and in the cochlear”, explains Kevin Munro, the audiology professor there.
“You could say that there is such a causal relationship– that the virus itself can trigger this damage”, confirms Prof. Dr. Thomas Lenarz, Clinical Director of the ENT clinic at the Medical University of Hanover to the German Bild newspaper. He too refers to publications relating to this. “We are seeing that according to reports, about 25 to 30 per cent [of COVID-19 patients] have a loss of hearing. Mostly not deaf, but so that there is a reduction in hearing ability.”
Sudden hearing losses up to severe hearing difficulty were also observed in several COVID patients in Austria, although those abilities returned over the course of recovery. Unfortunately, that was not the case for Hartmut Blum in Germany. The hospital got back in contact with the Medical University of Hanover. ENT specialist Lenarz took the patient on. He feared that the inflammation would also lead to scar tissue and ossification in the cochlear, which would have hindered a later intervention. Time was pressing.
Fast decision on hearing after COVID-19 infection
The family father was transferred back to Hanover on Easter Monday 2020. “On the way, the ambulance crew fulfilled my greatest wish. They stopped for a short while and opened the big back doors on a car park. There stood my wife with our children. It was very moving to see them again after 29 days– of course, with meticulous adherence to all the distancing rules.”
The cochlear implant took place three days later– under local anaesthetic due to the previous induced coma. So Blum was there live when the procedure reached its climax – the introduction of the multi-channel implant electrode in the snail-shaped inner ear. “The first test signal during the operation, a harmonious triad, showed me that the system was working”, reports the technically aware engineer. “Then the access was closed, and the location of the receiver coil checked. I was able to go back to the ward hardly an hour later.”
The miracle of living and hearing after COVID-19
On April 23rd, 39 days after the emergency corona intervention, Hartmut Blum was able to go home. “It was a bit unreal, after all that time and all those experiences. The encounter with death had left me deeply anxious. I needed time to leave the nightmare behind. Bit by bit, I struggled back to normality and took my first steps on the treadmill. And got used to my new hearing with the CI.”
He is now enjoying every little bit of normality: “It is a miracle that I am alive– and a miracle that I can hear.” Despite getting tired quickly and disturbances to concentration, he has been back at work 60% since July. Working from home and via Skype is tiring, but it is a little bit of normality. “It is entirely possible that I will also have a CI fitted in my left ear. Everything in good time. Now we are enjoying having my life back.”
In Bulgaria, CI specialist Doncho Donchev has gone back to work after recovery: in the ENT department also with his CI patients, in creating scientific work and now back on the COVID station, too. Donchev regularly donates plasma: antigens against the disease which are being used for urgently needed medications against COVID 19 are being extracted from the blood plasma of recovered COVID-19 patients. In many interviews, he is trying to encourage other recovered patients to donate plasma and to warn healthy people to take care. For his engagement in the “war against an invisible enemy”, as he calls it, the popular medic was named Doctor of the Year 2020 in Bulgaria. On the vaccination against COVID-19 now available, he adds, “Save humanity from the pestilence of the year in 2020! I advise everyone to be responsible and get vaccinated to protect themselves, their family and their fellow citizens.”