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Eight Months Later, COVID-19 'Brain Fog' Continues For One LA Artist

Toban Nichols in April, after he spent a month in bed and lost 25 pounds while sick with COVID-19. (Courtesy of Toban Nichols)
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About 80% of people who get infected with the coronavirus develop mild symptoms or no symptoms at all, and they typically recover after just two weeks, according to the World Health Organization.

But among the millions who have gotten ill, many have suffered long-term and sometimes debilitating heart, lung, and nervous-system impairments. Experts still don't know why.

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For Toban Nichols, it all started on March 11.

The 50-year-old L.A. visual artist was driving home from teaching a photography class and didn't feel right. As a diabetic and therefore immunocompromised, Nichols was used to "getting everything" and thought he'd probably contracted another cold.

But he had contracted COVID-19. Nichols spent the next month in bed. He had a terrible cough, and could barely walk from room to room in his house.

"It felt like someone had held me down and flossed my teeth really hard because I would wake up and my jaw would just hurt," he said.

Nichols lost most of his appetite and a strange pain kept him from eating even when he was hungry; he ended up losing 25 pounds.

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After about a month his symptoms gradually eased. He considered it a big accomplishment to walk to the front door.

Toban Nichols on his way to go hiking with his dog, Stoney. (Courtesy of Toban Nichols)

Eight months later, Nichols is still experiencing symptoms of COVID-19: shortness of breath, and neurological symptoms that range from fatigue to bouts of "brain fog."

"I do still have trouble breathing," he said, adding that his lungs don't feel the same as they did before he got sick. "I've been trying to sort of stretch out my lungs, I don't know if that's a term."

Nichols has improved to the point where he can take his dog on three-mile hikes, and he recently replaced his deck. But the rollercoaster is far from over. It takes him longer to recuperate.

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He's also noticed a persistent problem with his ability to concentrate.

"There are times where things just sort of become a little numb or a little frozen, as far as my mind goes," Nichols said. "I sort of will also sort of stare off into space a little bit at those times."

He said each episode lasts about 10 minutes; he has to work to regain his focus.

"It really varies because it's just such a strange phenomenon that you sort of just go a little foggy, you just can't concentrate," Nichols said.

Cases like Nichols' don't fit neatly into county health officials' data sets that tally cases, deaths, hospitalizations, and recoveries, and doctors are searching for answers as more patients report post-coronavirus cognitive impairment.

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Blood tests show he still has antibodies but no one knows how long they'll last or if they make him immune. While Nichols has improved somewhat, he's frustrated watching the pace of the pandemic pick up.

"It's infuriating to me when people don't take it seriously," he said. "They play with their lives, and they play with other people's lives. What you do in public is affecting other people."

Nichols wears a mask everywhere he goes and does everything else he can to make sure he doesn't get the coronavirus again. Eight months later, he still isn't over his first infection.