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Columbia Business Monthly

Procedure Restores Taste, Smell to Patients Who Had Covid-19

Apr 11, 2022 04:02PM ● By David Dykes

By Liv Osby

Pizza baking in the oven. Freshly brewed coffee. Chocolate.

Imagine that instead of the wonderful aromas associated with food and beverages like that you were greeted by such a strong and unpleasant smell it caused you to throw up.

That was the case for Hannah Roberts after she had Covid.

 “Many things were rotten, putrid, rancid … like a garbage dump,” she said. “All of my favorite things all of a sudden were disgusting to me like pizza, Diet Coke, potatoes, chocolate, red meat, and Italian and Mexican foods.”

Roberts, 38, said she was diagnosed with Covid in December 2020 with loss of taste and smell as her only symptoms. While she initially felt fortunate, it was seven months before those senses finally began to return. And instead of returning normally, she said, they were distorted.

“Basically, anything with flavor and/or seasoning were now horrible food triggers for me,” said the Pelzer woman. “It was mentally taxing on myself as well as anyone I had a meal with.”

After speaking with her family doctor and trying aromatherapy without results, she began searching the web for answers. 

Finally, she happened upon an article about a Texas pain physician who’d used a specific medical procedure to restore taste and smell in other Covid patients and resolved to go to Texas to have it done.

“After a year and four months of this,” she said, “I clung to any glimmer of hope possible.”

Before Roberts could go, though, her mother shared the article with a friend, who was office manager at the Piedmont Comprehensive Pain Management Group in Anderson and Greenville. She told her that their Dr. Eric Loudermilk did that procedure for other conditions.

Roberts was anxious to see him. And after talking with her and researching the Texas procedure, called a Stellate Ganglion Block, Loudermilk performed it on her in March. 

“Within minutes, I could smell spearmint, I could taste chocolate, and Diet Coke no longer tastes like nail polish remover,” she said. “And I had pizza for lunch that day, and it was just as good as I remember.”

Many people lose their sense of taste and smell after having Covid, according to Loudermilk. While it returns in most cases, it may be altered when it does, making previously pleasant smells repugnant, he said.

“I didn’t realize how disruptive it could be in people’s lives,” he said. “It can affect someone’s quality of life so much.”

Loudermilk said he has been performing the block for years to help patients with chronic pain from a condition called Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy. 

He uses fluoroscopy to visualize the structures in the neck, he said, and then injects a local anesthetic into a cluster of nerves called the stellate ganglion.

“It resets the olfactory nerve,” he said. 

After Roberts, Loudermilk did the block on two other patients, one who hadn’t been able to smell anything since last August.

Her son had been telling her that the refrigerator smelled bad but she didn’t notice it, he said. After the procedure, she went home and realized her son was right. 

So far, based on results from Texas, the results are long term and hopefully permanent, he said.

But as with any medical intervention, there are some risks associated with the block, including bleeding, infection, and nerve injury, he said. And those performing it need specialized training, he said.

Before the block, Roberts, a tax accountant, was sickened by her favorite perfume, laundry detergent, and even coffee. A deviled egg at Thanksgiving sent her racing to throw up. Herbs and spices were other major triggers.

“And I loved potatoes any way you could throw them at me – baked, fried, hash browns,” she said. “Suddenly I couldn’t be in the same room with them. They smelled and tasted horrible.”

Her diet was limited to sweet potatoes and barbecue, which she’d never been fond of before.

Now, she said, there’s only one thing that still tastes bad: ranch dressing. And she’s still unable to smell some things, such as the scent resembling rotten eggs or sulfur in natural gas. But she’s hopeful that will change over time.

Life is otherwise back to normal, she said, and she’s able to go out to dinner again with her husband and friends, something she always loved to do. 

“Before, I couldn’t go into a pizza place or Waffle House,” she said. “But now we’ve gone to Texas Roadhouse, Willy Taco, all the places we used to go. Nothing bothers me anymore.”