"I felt like I was dying, for real."
Ranya Rivera was hospitalized in March 2020 with COVID-19, one of the many who suffered the awful symptoms as doctors and nurses were still trying to figure out how to treat the rapidly spreading virus.
Thankfully, Rivera got better — but even months after recovering, the now-18-year-old says she still doesn't feel the same. She describes a feeling of brain fog, as well as increased depression and anxiety. She also had to cut her hair after experiencing hair loss.
"It was a pretty big deal to me because I've never had to make that choice of having to cut my hair," Rivera said. "Every day I live in constant fear if I'm ever going to have it again, or the next time I have it, I'm not going to recover from it ever again."
Roughly 20 percent of children who have had COVID suffer from long-term effects, said Dr. Uzma Hasan, the director of the pediatric post-COVID care program at St. Barnabas Medical Center. She said that the severity of the case doesn't matter, as even those with mild cases or were even asymptomatic have had the long-term effects.
"That was the goal of our program, to identify these children and make sure they returned 100 percent to functioning normally," Dr. Hasan told NBC New York. She said the symptoms can include fatigue, brain fog, loss of smell or taste, dizziness, depression and anxiety.
The team at St. Barnabas wants parents to look out for those symptoms and know there is help available.
"It's very frightening for patients and families who thought, 'Well, it's COVID but it's with a child. They won't get as sick.' And all of a sudden, they're having trouble in school," said Lauren Farrand, a nurse navigator with the pediatric post-COVID program.
The team is also urging teens to get vaccinated when they can.
"In the kids who have had long haul symptoms, we actually see an improvement in symptoms post them completing their vaccination series, so we're strongly urging it," Dr. Hasan said.
Rivera is also doing her part to encourage young people to get the vaccine and take the virus seriously — so they don't have to endure what she has.
"I would not wish this experience on my worst enemy," Rivera said.