Grammy Award nomination for Montreal artist a big boost as she battles post-COVID symptoms

MONTREAL — Luna Pearl Woolf sank to her lowest point last November. The successful Montreal composer was emotionally and physically worn out from living with post-COVID symptoms for more than seven months.

Tired of feeling tired, she began questioning her future.

“I started thinking, ‘Well if this is my life, how do I want to live it, do I want to keep trying to be a composer where I have to travel all over the world and get up and lead rehearsals?’” she said.

The mother of two was forced to reckon with a heartbreaking dilemma that so many people with long-term COVID symptoms — so-called ‘long-haulers’ — are facing.

On the ‘COVID Long-Haulers Support Group Canada’ Facebook page, comments from sufferers about their inability to work and take care of their families are common:

“11 months of barely being able to function.”

“…My family physician just says rest but that’s hard when bills still need to be paid.”

“I’m a self-employed massage therapist and can’t work.”

Woolf said she was pondering some tough questions one day last fall.

“If I physically can’t do it, what would I do?” she asked herself.

But the next day, to her great shock, her album of choral and dramatic chamber music ‘Fire and Flood’ was nominated for a Grammy Award in the Best Classical Compendium category.

“I thought that was funny,” Woolf said, acknowledging, “it’s one of those years where the highs and the lows are certainly off the charts!”

Her immediate reaction to the industry recognition mirrored that conflicted mind space.

“I remember in the back of my head, at the same time as feeling this incredible joy, I was thinking, is this going to make me sick just because I’m excited now? Am I going to be sick tomorrow because I’m crying?”

Most people wouldn’t have to wonder if they’d suffer a health setback because they were expending energy crying tears of joy, but after catching the SARS-CoV-2 virus last spring, Woolf has had to be cautious about every move she makes.

ONE OF THE FIRST

Woolf estimates she was among the first 1,000 people in Canada to get COVID-19, likely while working in New York City on March 10, and developing symptoms two days later back home in Montreal.

Also a producer and dramaturg, the Canadian-American composer has had works commissioned over the years by Carnegie Hall and the Washington National Opera among dozens of other ensembles and venues.

But the initial and unusual symptoms stopped her jet-set lifestyle in its tracks. She immediately self-isolated with “a huge headache. I had muscle pain that is almost indescribable, really terrible pains in my legs,” she said.

She also had bad chills but no fever, cough or shortness of breath.

That explains why when she decided to go to the Place des Arts drive-thru testing centre the day it opened she “had to fib a little just to get tested,” she said, because at the time, anyone who didn’t have one of a few established symptoms was turned away.

Sure enough, Woolf tested positive and other symptoms followed: nausea, dizziness and extreme fatigue that kept her in bed all day. She describes it as the worst she had ever felt in her life.

“And there was a factor where I couldn’t use my brain. This was something that was very new to me, to feel exhausted just by thinking.” Woolf said she still has trouble finding words sometimes.

Then the phenomenon patients describe as ‘riding a COVID-coaster‘ kicked in. She was better one day and then much worse the next, a state she said lasted six months, as she tried to slowly resume a semi-normal lifestyle – and paid for it with relapses.

Her heart pounds, she breathes hard and has some chest pain on occasion “in a way that doesn’t feel right.”

“I was in bed almost all of October and November because I had spent one week really going out and doing work things every day in September,” said Woolf. “I have to mete out my energy in teaspoons.”

NO MEDICAL SOLUTIONS

Her primary care doctor has been sympathetic but doesn’t “really know what to say.” Blood tests and a chest X-ray revealed nothing. She scheduled an echocardiogram but could only get an appointment in May.

The only thing that relieves her symptoms now is her effort to keep her heart rate low by moving slowly and carefully.

“That has actually resulted in fairly decent weeks where I’m not feeling sick, I’m not in bed all day, I don’t get chills – but it’s a crazy way to live,” said Woolf.

She wonders if her conditions will ever improve and “that’s what I don’t know and it’s scary,” said the artist and mother of two daughters.

She knows she isn’t alone. Infectious diseases specialist Dr. Emilia Falcone, the new director of a Montreal post-COVID clinic estimates that as many as 70 per cent of people in Quebec who were sick, might have lingering symptoms.

“Are all millions and millions of us now not going to be able to work, not be able to lift our kids?” mused Woolf.

“I think the focus has to turn at some point to quality of life for those of us who have been suffering from long-haul COVID for all this time,” she said.

Just after Woolf’s interview, CTV reported the Post-COVID Research Clinic at the Montreal Clinical Research Institute would be opening its doors imminently.

The artist was able to connect with them right away and said she was “thrilled” to learn a local scientist is taking on an area of research that will provide hope to so many in Quebec.

“The nurse told me that they are starting with the six-month group and they will move on to the even longer group in a couple of weeks,” Woolf explained in an email, adding “I signed up, I’m on their radar and not excluded.” She said she feels good about that.

The composer, who is “particularly renowned in the field of opera,” her website reads, is forging ahead with new creative projects. She recently held workshops to rehearse her new compositions for Opera McGill – at a reduced and healthy pace.

And she is reflecting on what a tumultuous year it’s been when two phone calls – one from a post-COVID clinic and the other telling her she’s been nominated for a Grammy Award – are competing head-to-head for best phone call ever. 

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