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Long COVID: One Norfolk man's battle with the virus's lingering effects

After spending 18 hours in the ER and four weeks in bed, Johnathan Stanley thought he was in the clear. Then, his life turned upside down.

NORFOLK, Va. — As the world begins to move on from COVID-19, or at least from the pandemic phase of the virus, millions still can’t.

That’s because they’re dealing with the lingering effects of the virus often called "long COVID."

Health officials say it’s hard to count exactly how many people are still battling brain, lung, heart or kidney problems. 

They estimate it’s about 30% of people who were infected with COVID-19. Johnathan Stanley is one of them.

Hearing him sing, you’d never know he’s struggling.

“Well, I can sing. I still have my singing voice,” he said.

Nine months ago, Stanley tested positive for COVID-19 for the second time.

“I was out of breath. I couldn’t breathe, my lungs were filled with fluid," he said.

Friends rushed him to the hospital, where he was hooked up to an IV and watched the virus kill the people around him.

After spending 18 hours in the emergency room, his doctor told him he could go home.

“He said, ‘Sir, the only reason why you’re alive is because you were vaccinated,’” Stanley said.

Stanley’s friends and family got him home, where he was bedridden for four weeks. When he finally got the strength to go downstairs and eventually drive, he thought he was in the clear.

But in January, he started having thyroid problems and difficulty swallowing. He lost his taste and smell again, along with 135 pounds.

But what devastated him most was when he began to lose his voice.

“I use my voice more than anything,” he said.

He went back to his doctor who told him he’s a "long hauler."

“She said ‘I want to be honest with you, I don’t know if you’ll ever get back your voice,'" Stanley said.

Once his doctors took a closer look at his throat, they sent him to an ear, nose and throat specialist. They broke the news he now has throat cancer, possibly caused by COVID-19.

“This is a theory that they have that with all of the coughing and all of the stuff, it aggravated certain cells in me, the squamous cells and things like that, it aggravated some of that stuff that made that come alive and cause this cancer,” he said.

One study in the Wiley Public Health Emergency Collection states that based on early reports, it is becoming increasingly evident that cancer patients are more susceptible to COVID-19. The study goes on to say that whether long COVID-19 increases the risk of cancer in people with no history of cancer is unclear. They hypothesize long COVID-19 may predispose recovered patients to cancer development and accelerate cancer progression.

Many studies and researchers agree there needs to be a lot more research into not only ‘long COVID-19,’ but the virus’ impact on cancer cells.

Stanley said because of the havoc this virus has wreaked on his entire body, he can’t provide for the community like he used to.

“I can’t do what I did right now, and I don’t want my people to suffer,” he said with tears in his eyes.

He co-founded the Compassion Advocacy Network with his "brother from another mother" David Hutcherson more than 20 years ago.

“Our whole objective is to teach the world to love through simple acts of kindness by putting compassion into action,” said Stanley.

They work to provide necessities to the elderly and sick across Hampton Roads— something Stanley is visibly very passionate about.

“They’re my friends, they’re my people. I love them. I just want them to be taken care of,” he said. “I can’t go out to the people that I usually do and go to the homes and go to the places and be readily available to help them.”

Hutcherson said watching Stanley go through this has made him feel helpless, but he’s in awe of his "brother’s" strength.

“I just admire his leadership in that regard. To trust in your faith and to go through the process, even if you don’t know, having faith at the end of the day that you’re gonna get your just reward -- the healing that you need,” he said.

Hutcherson said being there for the people you love is everything in these situations.

“I can’t imagine what it’s like for people that don’t have family and friends to be able to go through that process with the support that’s required for healthy recovery," he said.

Stanley said the thought of serving the community again and using his voice to lift people up is what keeps him fighting.

“One day at a time. One day at a time,” he said.

As the world seemingly moves on from the pandemic that has killed 6.2 million people worldwide, Stanley knows that he’s not the only one staying behind to continue to heal.

And he has a message for those that are healing alongside him.

“You’re going to make it. Just like I’m going to make it. We’re going to make it. It’s going to be alright.”

Next on Stanley’s recovery journey-- radiation to fight the cancer in his throat.

He said he and his doctors are going to attack it with everything they have.

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