Martha Lee from Devon, England, an avid traveler and hiker, explains to Sara Stewart how having long COVID has affected – but not stopped – her ability to move around in the world. 

“I’ve been traveling solo and with friends since I was 17. I like to save up money and time, then head off somewhere for a month. I exclusively stay in hostels, because you can always find someone who wants to do the same things.

“The most incredible hike I’ve done was the Tour du Mont Blanc, the 100-mile-ish route through France and southern Italy. I lived in Guatemala for just under a year, working with an NGO, which was amazing. I climbed Santiaguito, which is an active volcano there. 

“I got back from a trip to Mexico the day before the stay-at-home order was announced for COVID. I had COVID quite a few times, but the one that triggered the long COVID was in August 2021. I wasn’t in the hospital, but I was very, very ill for a few weeks. It took months to be able to do stairs, or to actually socialize. 

Enjoying the sun in the Algarve, despite the long COVID symptoms © Martha Lee

“Now I’ve got to the point where I can walk on a flat surface for up to half an hour, very slowly. My ‘battery,’ as they call it in the clinics, is much smaller. If you overextend yourself, you’ll be ill for a week. Brain fog means I struggle sometimes to find a particular word. I was working as a management consultant but I lost my job, because I couldn’t manage a team. I can’t absorb information the same way; my memory is rubbish.

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“Last September, I went on a family holiday to Spain. We all met up near Bilbao, in the mountains. I couldn’t do any of the hiking; I just stayed home. Then our flight back got canceled, and we had to spend an unplanned weekend in Madrid. I went to breakfast, dinner and spent half an hour in a gallery – and that was more or less my weekend. 

Planning a trip with long COVID

“I did manage one solo trip so far, to Lagos, Portugal, about this time last year. The amount of planning when you can’t just absorb what life throws at you made this a very different trip. For instance, emailing the hostel saying, ‘Please can I not have a top bunk,’ because of the ladder – and then you get there and there’s three flights of stairs to get to the room! That’s going to be a big activity. 

“But Lagos was a good choice, because everything’s within 10-minute walking distance. You could do a really nice slow walk, be on the beach for a bit, take a slow walk back. And a lovely fresh food market was three minutes from the hostel. It’s not somewhere like Rome, where there’s so much that you need to do – and if you can’t, you feel that you’ve wasted your trip.

Memories of pre-COVID trips, in Lake Louise (left) and Andalucía © Martha Lee

“I think I’ve met about two other people with long COVID. Maybe it’s because none of us are getting out very much! Everyone seems very unaware. [In a hostel], I had conversations with girls in the beds next to me, and they hadn’t heard of it.  They were from the US and right now there are 20 million Americans, at least, who have it.

“There are so many invisible disabilities that people just don’t understand. There’s a lot of stigma: ‘You don’t look sick.’ Yes, that’s because you’re seeing me at my most energetic! It’s like living an Instagram life, because you’re always projecting the best bits and hiding everything else.”

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