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A Hartford actor on living with long COVID: 'My life is much smaller'

A bearded man looks at the camera with computer screens in the background, including one that has a page open that says keep calm and carry on
Vermont Public
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Erica Heilman
Hartford actor Chris Flockton has struggled with long COVID for nearly two years

Chris Flockton is a stage and voice actor who lives with his family in Hartford, Vermont.

He grew up in the U.K., and in November of 2020, on a visit home to his mother, he contracted COVID-19. According to the World Health Organization, long COVID-19 refers to people who are experiencing symptoms resulting from the virus at least two months from its onset.

And according to the Centers for Disease Control, nearly one in five American adults who have had COVID are experiencing symptoms of long COVID. Chris Flockton is among them.

Nineteen months after his bout with COVID, Chris is still experiencing symptoms resulting from the virus. Reporter Erica Heilman visited and spoke with him about living with long COVID.

Weeks into the first COVID lockdown in the winter of 2020, Chris Flockton got a call that his mother was dying. She had stage four lung cancer, and she had contracted COVID. Chris flew out to be with her as she was dying. While he was there, he contracted a mild case of COVID. Then some weeks later, after his mother had died, and after he tested negative, he returned to his family in Hartford, Vermont. But something was wrong.

Chris Flockton: "It was very frustrating at the beginning, because I didn't know what was going on. And the first time I noticed something was wrong was when I was coming home from England. And everything was just so hard, like getting through the airport, carrying my luggage, just the process of getting back home. I was exhausted, and I just chalked it up to, ‘Oh, it's been an emotional trip.' But then it persisted.

"And I ended up in the emergency room. And they checked me out and they said, ‘There's nothing physically wrong with your heart.’ Pulmonologist: ‘Your lungs are fine.’ Infectious disease guy takes like, you know, half the blood out of my body, and sends it off to the lab. He said, ‘No, you don't have any rare and exotic disease.’"

"Everything was just so hard, like getting through the airport, carrying my luggage, just the process of getting back home. I was exhausted, and I just chalked it up to, ‘Oh, it's been an emotional trip.' But then it persisted."
Chris Flockton

Erica: "When you say ‘exhausted’, is there a particular quality to the fatigue? Can you describe it?"

Chris Flockton: "We all know what it's like if we climb a mountain or go running and you're just like, you're puffed. But this was just this crushing exhaustion, where — oh! And your body shakes, it's a really great feature, like you feel like you're vibrating on the inside — and you know, like you feel like your knees want to give out and you just really need to lie down. It's a pretty overwhelming feeling of exhaustion."

More from Vermont Public: An NEK elementary teacher carries on through loss, getting COVID herself

Erica: "Well, how did you determine that this was long COVID?"

Chris Flockton: "Pretty, pretty quickly, you know, maybe by March or April of 2021, people are starting to say 'long COVID.' 'We don't have much experience with it, because it only started last year, but we think this is long COVID. And our best thinking is this.’ And then the next visit that might be different best thinking. And all they can really do is treat the symptoms.

"So you know, I'm on a drug to bring my racing heart down. I’m on a drug for blood pressure. So they treat the symptoms. And the last best thinking I heard was that they think that there's a neurological component to this. And please don't get the impression that I have any idea what I'm talking about. But there's some sort of neurological component with this, where even though your heart and your lungs are fine, your brain tells them to do stupid things.

"So if I carry recycling to the end of the driveway, that is not something that should exhaust an average person. But my brain says, ‘Oh, yeah! Go on! Make him sweat! Make his heart rate go up to 150! Make it hard for him to breathe!’ So totally inappropriate reactions to doing something, you know, vacuuming my living room gets me a heart rate of 160 and soaked in sweat. So it's really kind of personal.

"But at the same time, sitting here now with you in this studio, which is actually quite cool, I feel fine. I feel like my normal self. What's odd about my case of long COVID is how long it has been. It's been 18, 19 months so far."

"My life is not the life I had pre-COVID. My life is much smaller. And it exists basically on our little piece of land and in our house."
Chris Flockton

Erica: "Do you feel trapped? This feeling of not being able to grab more resources..."

Chris Flockton: "Yeah, I feel limited. You know, I've never been the ideal of physical fitness, shall we say. But I've always been a guy who if I wanted to, you know, run a mile, I could run a mile. If I want to go hiking up that mountain, I could do that. You know, I have a 14-year-old son, and it limits the things that I can do with him. Yeah, but I always come back to, this is going to be a hugely serious issue for society. Not me, per se. People who can't go to work, people who have a warehouse job or something like that, or drive for FedEx or — what are they going to do? So societally, I just think this is massive."

Erica: "Have you experienced, or are there shades of stigma attached to this?"

Chris Flockton: "I'm not sure I've experienced stigma. But yes, I can live my life. And I'm very lucky in that sense. But my life is not the life I had pre-COVID. My life is much smaller. And it exists basically on our little piece of land and in our house and doing my work, in as much as I can, in my studio.

"And we all experienced that during the pandemic. I think our lives got smaller, but mine has not been able to get big again. And it's not like I was parasailing every weekend or anything like that. It's just, I guess, that's, that's not — that was not my life. But, you know, just going and doing and seeing and being is exhausting."

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or tweet us @vermontpublic.

Erica Heilman produces a podcast called Rumble Strip. Her shows have aired on NPR’s Day to Day, Hearing Voices, SOUNDPRINT, KCRW’s UnFictional, BBC Podcast Radio Hour, CBC Podcast Playlist and on public radio affiliates across the country. Rumble Strip airs monthly on Vermont Public. She lives in East Calais, Vermont.
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