(Australian Associated Press)
Will Smith was training more than 12 times a week as a top-level college athlete in the United States when the young Victorian man was struck down with COVID-19.
The 24-year-old got sick in March 2020 after returning home to Melbourne from Boston, where he had spent four years on Northeastern University’s rowing team.
He described the initial phase of the illness as “incredibly frightening”.
“The feeling of straining against your own body, trying to expand your lungs against this invisible force, struggling to breathe,” Mr Smith told reporters on Tuesday.
He isolated at his family home, allowing his mother and stepfather to avoid contracting the virus.
His symptoms were mild enough to avoid hospital and get cleared after a couple of weeks.
But the former Caulfield Grammar student is still grappling with the long-term effects.
“Long-COVID is real … it’s not a place you want to be,” Mr Smith said.
“Months after my diagnosis I still couldn’t walk around the block without getting light-headed, needing to lie down, struggling to breathe. I had such debilitating fatigue that I sometimes couldn’t even get out of bed.”
He said long-COVID involves periods of remission, interspersed with intense flare-ups.
A relapse can be brought on by something as simple as walking the dog or kicking the footy – more than 18 months after first contracting COVID-19.
“I’m still nowhere near normal,” he said.
More than 83 per cent of Victorians aged 16 and up have now had their first COVID-19 vaccination, with 53 per cent double-dosed.
But as the state aims to hit 80 per cent double-vaccination for that age bracket by early November, Mr Smith urged more Victorians to roll up their sleeves.
“It doesn’t matter how young you are, it doesn’t matter how fit you are, it doesn’t matter how indestructible you feel – COVID can still hit you,” he said.
“And you don’t have to be on a ventilator to have your life turned upside down for months, or maybe even years.
“Why take that risk? We can fight back. And we can now protect ourselves and those we love – we can get vaccinated.”
Another COVID survivor, 49-year-old Kim Hanrahan, spent six days in intensive care after getting sick in July last year.
“My lungs had collapsed and I had required a constant flow of oxygen,” Ms Hanrahan said.
“COVID also stripped me of my dignity, unable to go to the bathroom or wash myself. I had to rely on the amazing kindness of the ICU nurses, who cared for me at their own risk.”
The Newport woman, who had no previous underlying health conditions, said most of her hair fell out after battling the virus.
She also continues to suffer from fatigue and brain fog.
“Fourteen months later and I feel like I’ve aged 10 years,” Ms Hanrahan said.
“I feel a lesser version of myself due to this horrible, debilitating disease.”
Her message to Victorians, like Mr Smith, was simple – get vaccinated.
“Don’t play Russian roulette with your health, or of those you love,” she said.