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Some long haulers still dealing with severe taste, smell issues due to COVID; North Texas clinic working on experimental treatment

Parosmia has been a common long-term affect of COVID-19. A North Texas clinic invited WFAA to watch a new experimental procedure to help patients recover.

WEATHERFORD, Texas — If you got COVID and lost your sense of taste or smell, you remember how unsettling that felt.

A large community of long haulers is experiencing severe problems with taste and smell, and a North Texas pain clinic is performing an experimental treatment that's showing promise for those suffering.

Holly Fimple and her boyfriend drove five hours from Tulsa to Weatherford for a chance to feel normal again.

"I was to the point where I will try anything," Fimple said.

The couple got COVID in November 2020. Both lost taste and smell. JB's came back. Holly's didn't at first.

"Then when it came back, it came back really bad," she said.

Common odors from perfume to popcorn instantly trigger nausea and vomiting for Holly.

"Fruits all tasted like moldy and rotten," described Holly. "The worst smells were coffee and onions."

The sensations were so intense and debilitating that Holly rarely leaves their house.

"I've missed so many family birthdays where everybody gets together," she said.

Holly found a Facebook group with 52,000 people sharing similar experiences.

That group led her to Lone Star Pain Medicine in Weatherford, where she's getting an experimental treatment for parosmia. That's when the brain can't properly identify something's natural smell. Instead, things smell burned, rotten, or chemical.

"I'm hoping to get some normal tastes back," she said.

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Joshua Dunlap, a certified registered nurse anesthetist let us watch as he performed a 5-minute procedure called a stellate ganglion block. Using ultrasound guidance, he injects medication into nerves in Holly's neck, on either side of the voice box.

"It's almost like hitting the reset button on the sympathetic nervous system to kind of get things back to normal," Dunlap explained.

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Minutes after the procedure, Holly did a taste and smell test. 

Before the block, she said Sprite tasted like perfume. Afterward, she said the perfume taste was gone and that it tasted relatively normal again.

While not everything was back to normal right away, Holly says it is getting better over time.

"I got to where I'm not gagging," she said, which made this procedure worth a shot to tolerate life's senses again.

"To watch the difference in her life... is amazing," said her boyfriend JB Robison, Jr.

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Because this treatment is experimental, it is not covered by insurance.

It is not for everyone, and there is no guarantee that it will work. Risks include bleeding, infection, and nerve damage. They will not treat anyone with local skin infections, or breathing problems like asthma, bronchitis, or COPD.

Dunlap does the block on one side of the neck at a time. It costs $300 per side, and he said patients need at least four hours of wait time between injections.

"I do think there's going to be a ton of research on [this] in the next five to 10 years," Dunlap said. Their team performed the first stellate ganglion block on a COVID long hauler patient successfully in November 2021.

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