If you get COVID-19, there’s a good chance you’ll experience a particular side effect: a loss of a sense of smell.
People have always experienced smell loss, but COVID-19 is bringing new attention to it. The medical community is still working to understand it.
A woman says her whole life has been preparing her to help people who have lost their sense of smell.
Finding fresh ingredients and making meals for the people she loves has always been special to Mimi Ellis. Her parents were French immigrants who passed down their love of cooking.
“Growing up, everything was about, ‘What’s for dinner?’ Everybody gathered in the kitchen together cooking things,” said Ellis. “Food is such a big part of my life.”
One morning, while going through an upper respiratory infection, Ellis walked into her kitchen and couldn’t smell fresh coffee. She worked as a physician’s assistant in an Ear Nose Throat practice and knew something was wrong.
“I knew there was a chance it’d never get better,” said Ellis. “Smell is such a big part of taste. That informs about 80% of what we think of as taste. I couldn’t perceive flavor, couldn’t tell you what was an apple, what was a pear. I was really angry. Big time. I was so upset; I came home that night and literally took out all my cookbooks. I put them all in boxes and threw them in the garage.”
Ellis told her family she wouldn’t cook again. However, one day, her mind changed. That started with her daughter, Zoe.
“My daughter is small in stature,” said Ellis. “She’s got the most common form of dwarfism. My daughter’s 3’11”, and she competed on her high school swim team.”
Through her daughter, Ellis also met Paralympians in competitive swimming.
“The resiliency of the people we met through this was just life-changing,” she said.
Nothing was stopping any of them, so Ellis figured it was time to unbox the cookbooks.
According to the Journal of Internal Medicine, about 86% of people with COVID have experienced a loss of smell, though most of them recover it within 60 days. The pandemic has a lot more people talking about a temporary or permanent loss of smell. Many are also experiencing parosmia where everything smells bad or rotten.
“It’s very isolating for a lot of people who can’t leave their room,” said Ellis. “Absolutely, there’s hope.”
Ellis is now a certified health coach, and founder of the program and website Getting Well When You Can’t Smell. She teaches courses and does one-on-one Zoom meetings with people who have lost their sense of smell on what to prepare for meals. That means training them to use the senses they have in order to concentrate on the textures of food and the sounds they make when you bite into them.
“Hone in on those other sensory aspects of food; that’s what I try to teach people to do,” said Ellis.
This is called olfactory retraining, one way of trying to return a sense of smell.
“You get a little bite from the black pepper, and then you put it with all these colors and textures and tastes,” said Ellis, finishing up a dish.
“I like it,” said Zoe, looking at the dish her mother created from fresh kale, beans, onions, chicken, and dried fruit. “It’s very colorful. Very big dish.”
A woman who inherited a love of good food now says she has recovered much of her sense of smell. She’s grateful to everyone who’s led her to this day of helping so many decide what’s for dinner.
“It’s just an awareness of what has to be possible, even when everyone else says it’s not,” said Ellis.
For more on Ellis’ work, visit her website.