Last weekend, you might have spotted Michael Kushner backstage at BroadwayCon, shooting pictures of Hillary Clinton — or hanging out in the dressing rooms of the Broadway famous. But, as the theater world returns to “normal”, behind the scenes Kushner has been fighting an intense, two-year battle to diagnose myriad symptoms cascading from first-wave COVID-19.
“A blood clot. After two years of telling numerous doctors that COVID left me feeling completely re-wired, and no one really believing me, they finally found what COVID causes: a blood clot,” he posted on Instagram after learning the news.
As the city girds itself for yet another variant surge — this time, from the super potent and transmissible BA.5 — the remnants of the first wave of the virus are still gripping many other New Yorkers in the form of the amorphous and debilitating Long COVID. According to a survey from the National Center for Health Statistics and the US Census, as many as 7.5 percent of all US adults — 20 million people — currently report symptoms of Long COVID. “We don’t know enough about the factors that will predict your likelihood of getting Long Covid or not,” said Dr. Jay Varma, an epidemiologist who previously worked for City Hall, in a NY Times article. “So effectively every new infection that you get is rolling the dice.”
For Michael Kushner, Long COVID began in the early, rapid-fire days of the first virus variant in March of 2020. “It was such a different sensation than other illnesses,” he said. “It felt like the flu, but it wasn’t. I went to the hospital, but they turned me away because I wasn’t showing symptoms that required hospitalization I did have a fever, but I didn’t have shortness .of breath. So I went home, and then the next day I lost my smell and taste. I think the Forbes article that said loss of taste and smell might be a sign of COVID came out that day.”
As with most of the ensuing COVID variants, symptoms have been wide-ranging, difficult to codify, ever-changing and often highly individual to the infected patient — causing further distress for those like Kushner who found themselves navigating lingering maladies with little guidance from local and national healthcare authorities.
“About a month after contracting COVID, I did a short at-home workout on YouTube — and it was as if I had never moved my body before,” said Kushner. “I’m a theater artist, and I’m very used to over-extending my body and understanding its physical capacity, and here I was after a rinky dink eight-minute ab workout beet red, sweating profusely, feeling like I was about to pass out. It didn’t seem normal.”
Without a baseline for what a post-COVID “normal” looked like, combined with an early-pandemic insistence from public health officials only to seek treatment for severe symptoms to curb facility overwhelm, Kushner endured increasingly troubling physical effects before pursuing answers.
“After I started showing signs of rectal bleeding in addition to fatigue and brain fog, I was starting to identify as a long-hauler,” said Kushner. Going from doctor to doctor desperately looking for a diagnosis or treatment plan, Kushner was met with frustratingly indifferent and dismissive responses.
“I feel like it took a second for them to correlate losses with COVID, which is understandable,” said Kushner. “But I know my body and I knew that this was very strange — and I knew other people were experiencing similar issues.” While trying to get answers, providers questioned his symptoms, declared him ineligible for further treatment and even refused to conduct tests or see him.
“I sat down with one doctor and was like, ‘yeah, I’m a long-hauler,’” said Kushner. “And she went, ‘what’s that?’” He added: “Then they ghosted me. I had to get a specific referral for a gastrointestinal visit and I couldn’t get in contact with them — my insurance couldn’t even get in contact with them.”
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Over a year and a half after his first colonoscopy, Kushner was able to get the proper tests to determine that he had developed a blood clot — a side effect associated more and more with the residual effects of Long COVID. Despite the revelation, he still hasn’t been given an official diagnosis as a long-hauler or supportive treatment to go with it. “That’s how slow the process has been,” said Kushner. “I’m showing every symptom of Long COVID but I have yet to be officially diagnosed by the nurse practitioner.”
The exhaustive experience has given him a new appreciation for those who have been forced to advocate for themselves in the wake of a frequently flawed US healthcare system. Kushner said: “I empathize with people who have chronic illnesses who have to constantly deal with the cracks in the healthcare system.” He hopes that by sharing his story he can raise awareness of what to look out for, for others going through the same COVID effects.
In addition to continuing to advocate for proper treatment, Kushner plans to move forward with as much grace and humor as he can through the challenges. “I refuse to give into the negative,” he said. “I am a very positive person and that’s why I’ve chosen to be open about this — because I hope to inspire anyone else that is going through this and might recognize it in themselves. This pandemic happened, and it got me, but I’m going to keep going on with my life and I’m not going to let it get me down.”