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Washougal author details long COVID impacts, daily struggles

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category icon COVID-19 coverage, Hometown, Latest News, News
Contributed photo courtesy Mary Ladd The Long COVID reader, featuring essays and poems written by 45 COVID-19 "long-haulers," including a Washougal resident, was released on Wednesday, Nov. 15. (Contributed photo courtesy of Mary Ladd)

Shortly after leaving his Washougal residence, Rowan MacDonald shuffles through his iPod, searching for the perfect track to propel him up the short hill in front of him. His playlist is filled with songs from the 1990s, reflecting the mindset of their listener, who yearns for the past.

“I pause and look up at the incline, my intense focus no different now than in the 100-meter blocks when I was a sprinter, back when I was healthy,” MacDonald wrote in an essay. “Back to another life entirely.”

MacDonald’s essay, “The Journey to the Bench,” is featured in “The Long COVID Reader,” a recently released literary anthology authored by 45 COVID-19 “long-haulers” in the U.S.

MacDonald recently wrote that he “loves the escapism writing provides and how its flexibility fits into his life with long COVID,” and believes the book “represents a positive light in otherwise dark circumstances.”

Of his inclusion in “The Long COVID Reader,” MacDonald wrote that he is “proud to be part of such a diverse community,” and “hopes this project brings much-needed awareness to the plight of many.”

In “The Journey to the Bench,” MacDonald writes about his physical and mental struggles to complete a short walk from his house to a bench in front of a nearby nursing home.

“I give thanks for being able to summit this Everest today, for reaching a graffiti-ridden bench and cigarette butts and broken glass. Because by making it here, I have overcome my broken body,” he wrote. “(My daily walk is) my last remaining connection to the world, since I rarely go anywhere else. This journey requires steely determination, because my symptoms grow with each step, occasionally rising to the surface. Such symptoms need chess-game concentration levels to push through.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines long COVID as a wide range of new, returning or ongoing health problems — including fatigue, difficulty breathing, headaches, brain fog, joint and muscle pain, and continued loss of taste and smell — that people experience at least four weeks after being infected with the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19.

As of 2022, long COVID had affected about 19 million Americans, according to a CDC study.

“Long COVID leaves us exhausted, stressed, lonely, and grieving the fuller lives we once led,” Mary Ladd, the anthology’s founding editor, wrote in the book’s introduction. “Many of us are debilitated, newly disabled, or unable to participate in society anymore.”

San Francisco-based Long Hauler Publishing published the book and released it to the public Nov. 15. The book is the brainchild of Ladd, a California-based author who contracted COVID in early 2022.

“I had breast cancer 10 years ago, and I became aware of a publication called ‘Wildfire,’ (which is) for youngish breast cancer patients. The reason I love ‘Wildfire’ is the way it makes me feel. It helps me feel less afraid. I can relate to almost every poem, every story, every piece,” Ladd recently told The Post-Record. “When I first had long COVID, ‘Wildfire’ remained a resource that I would read as soon as (I could, either digitally or) in print, and I noticed that there wasn’t a publication like ‘Wildfire’ (for COVID long-haulers). I do have experience as a writer, and I help folks navigate difficult illnesses and life situations, so I thought, ‘Well, why don’t I create it?’”

Ladd sent out a solicitation for submissions in November 2022, and received more than 200 by her stated cut-off date of April 2023. The book includes works by established writers and poets such as Pato Hebert, Emily Pinkerton, Morgan Stephens and Nina Storey, as well as people without any writing background at all, such as MacDonald.

“It’s by long-haulers, for long-haulers,” Ladd said. “(By reading this book), they don’t feel as alone. No one in this community is going to second-guess your symptoms or your experience or say, ‘Well, you really should sleep more, or drink this tea or supplement.’ We believe you (because) we understand what it’s like. It’s also a morale booster because you feel like, ‘I can keep going. I can think of others. There’s millions of millions of us, and the numbers are growing.’”

Despite being told by a diverse group of authors, the stories contain several common themes, Ladd said.

“(There is a lot of) gaslighting where colleagues, friends, family and medical providers aren’t listening to us about the truth of what we’re experiencing,” Ladd said. “Also, I feel some of these are ‘ghost stories,’ so to speak, because we are looking in the mirror and we can remember how our bodies were, what our lives were like just months ago, years ago, (but) we’ve lost our abilities.”

Ladd said the anthology contains themes of not just loss and grief, but also of acceptance.

“There are also themes of changed routines, figuring out how to navigate who you are as a changed human being,” she said. “There’s also a little bit of gallows humor in some of the pieces, and for me, that’s a tool that really helps and works.”

Ladd hopes the book can affect change because, she said, long-haulers “don’t have time to wait” for the help they need.

‘There was a sense of urgency,” Ladd said. “We just can’t wait for politicians or people who make decisions for society on an institutional level to pay attention. … The point is to make people understand we haven’t disappeared. We are still here. We need help. We need institutional support. We need money. We might not have someone to give us a ride to our appointments or things like that.”

Ladd said the book began as a way to get a conversation started with “everyday folks, because that’s how we can affect change.”

“I don’t want people to forget about us just because we might look OK. We might look ‘normal,’ and yet we have very difficult days,” she explained.

Ladd said MacDonald’s essay stood out because of its crisp writing — “We didn’t have to edit it a lot; we loved it as is,” she said — and its relatable themes.

“There’s talent shining through,” Ladd said of MacDonald’s writing. “I found it extremely relatable that he’s 32 years old and comparing and contrasting himself with elderly folks, such as his neighbor, who is 87 years old. That really stood out to me, because it goes back to the ‘invisible illness’ piece. If the reader saw him sitting on the bench or trying to make his way to a bench, they don’t know the backstory. I think he did a really great job of (portraying) how exhausting long COVID can be, how something that seems trivial, just a walk to somewhere, can really take it out of you, and how drained he gets from trying to speak with his neighbor because she has more stamina and strength than he does.”

Ladd liked that MacDonald maintains a connection to the outside world.

“I think many of us are trying to maintain that connection to humanity. Throughout this whole process, he’s mourning his pre-COVID life, but there are signs of life around him that he has come to appreciate,” Ladd said. “He is able to do these practices that some of us try — we still try and breathe, or maybe meditation is something that is new and helps us continue to reconnect with the body that we have. And then there’s an acceptance there, even as you grieve.”

MacDonald said writing can be therapeutic, adding: “There are studies that show that writing your way through difficult things can heal and help you.”

To learn more about “The Long COVID Reader,” available at Bookshop.org, Amazon and other online book vendors, visit maryladd.com.