In May, Nick Guthe lost his wife, Heidi Ferrer, to suicide after she struggled for 13 months with debilitating post-COVID-19 symptoms.
Ferrer, a screenwriter for the popular TV drama “Dawson’s Creek,” leaves behind Guthe and their 13-year-old son.
Her symptoms began with pain in her feet — a symptom that would later become known as COVID toes. Guthe originally thought Ferrer suffered from plantar fasciitis but their physician disagreed.
Ferrer’s foot pain became so debilitating that she eventually had difficulty navigating the stairs in her home.
Both Guthe and Ferrer had received negative COVID-19 cheek swab results. But as Ferrer’s condition worsened, she took a more accurate test developed by Stanford researcher Dr. Bruce Patterson. That test came back positive and eventually Ferrer was referred to the long-hauler clinic at the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. The referral arrived the day before Ferrer died by suicide.
Throughout her long-hauler ordeal, Ferrer experienced a number of post-COVID-19 symptoms, including intestinal issues, diarrhea, body aches, and chronic exhaustion, Guthe says.
“She would ask me to carry glasses of water upstairs,” he says. “For anything slightly heavy, I would carry upstairs for her.”
Ferrer shared her experiences as a sufferer of long-haul COVID-19 on her blog, Girl to Mom. In a particularly poignant entry she wrote: “In my darkest moments, I told my husband that if I didn’t get better, I did not want to live like this. I wasn’t suicidal, I just couldn’t see any quality of life long term and there was no end in sight.”
Despite that, she encouraged other long-haulers to hold onto hope. “I believe this in my bones. If you're suffering from this monster, you will eventually make it out,” Ferrer wrote.
In a recent study, Psychiatrist Leo Sher writes that COVID-19 long-haulers show a constellation of psychiatric and neurological symptoms, including brain inflammation, which together can increase suicidal thoughts.
The findings don’t surprise Guthe, who recalls his wife telling him she felt increasingly disconnected, as though a fog was clouding her ability to think. She also described experiencing a physical pressure in her brain, he says.
Guthe say he thinks it’s important for physicians to assume those with these unusual symptoms are suffering from post-COVID-19 syndrome. Getting this validation is critical to their psychological health at a time when they feel helpless and isolated.
He says it’s also crucial to talk about the medications that might improve their conditions, and then closely monitor their response to these drugs. He adds that this should be in addition to setting them up with immediate mental health support.
Guthe says he felt heartbroken by the toll long-hauler COVID-19 was taking on Ferrer during her final month.
“She said, ‘I feel like I'm a robot that's malfunctioning,’ ” he says. “... She had burning in her lungs when she tried to sleep at night. Her heart, you know, the circulatory system was haywire. She literally felt like every single system in her body, including her brain, was just short circuiting.”
Guthe now encourages others who are struggling with long-hauler symptoms to reach out to him on her blog where he can refer them to the resources they need to get help. Among those he’s already helped are some of the friends Ferrer made through support groups. He says some have already received new medical treatments.
Still, he says it’s bittersweet that these advances come just a month after he told his wife to hang on, he says. If there are breakthroughs in the next few months, Guthe says he’ll be happy for anyone who can benefit — yet he’ll still be haunted by it for the rest of his life.
Guthe says he continues to talk to his wife. He says he understands the pain and despair she experienced and doesn’t judge Ferrer for taking her own life.
“I can't live in the past,” he says, “I'm just really just trying to honor her spirit now.”
If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (En Español: 1-888-628-9454; Deaf and Hard of Hearing: 1-800-799-4889) or the Crisis Text Line by texting 741741.
This segment aired on June 28, 2021.