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University of Southern California
University of Southern California
USC Chan Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy
USC Chan Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy
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8 things I 8 this year that I used to love, but now h8


December 22, 2021

Life Hacks What are OS/OT?

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As we heard more and more about a novel “coronavirus” with each day, I was working full-time as a rehab aide at a nursing home — which at the time, were severely ill-equipped to handle a pandemic with respect to manpower and physical resources. One morning in April 2020, I woke up for another day of work when I realized that overnight, I had been robbed of 2 out of the 5 primary ways I interact with this world.

The anosmia (loss of smell) and ageusia (loss of taste) lasted about 3-4 weeks, but fast forward to 20 months later, nearly TWO YEARS, and I still experience parosmia and dysgeusia, which means those 2 senses returned but that my perception of how things taste and smell is incorrect compared to my memory of them. So without further ado, here are 8 things I have consumed during this pandemic that I used to love, as well as some tips and tricks I’ve picked up along the way so I can continue to enjoy them as I adapt to this new and strange sensory experience.

  1. I’ll start off with the one that makes me saddest — potatoes 🥔. Yup, that wonderful versatile vegetable. Like a diamond, she thrives under pressure — she can be mashed, she can be fried, she can be baked and loaded. We all know and love her! My comfort food was always french fries, so you can imagine my disappointment when my teeth first pierced through that crispy exterior and I immediately wanted to spit it back out. Where I used to taste salty, crunchy goodness, I now perceive an enhanced chemical flavor of starch. My workaround? Sweet potato fries! My perception of sweet foods didn’t change much, so sweet potatoes still taste the same and even though it’s not exactly the same, I still get the oral gratification from the textures.
  2. Speaking of enhanced chemical flavor, you know that very distinct artificial banana flavor they put in candy, like with banana-flavored Laffy Taffy? Well, all bananas 🍌 taste like that to me now. While it’s not the same, I am reminded of what a banana used to taste like when it’s mixed among other fruits, like in a smoothie or açaí bowl! The banana flavor is still most prominent in those mixtures, but the “artificial” flavor is dampened some by other fruits, yogurts, and juices.
  3. If I could only have one food for the rest of my life, it would be either phở or tacos but an essential garnish to both is onion. However, I can tell the distortion of onion is resolving with time because at first, the smell of it was unbearable and truly smelled like the secretion from axillary nodes (aka B.O. 😅) but now, if I cook the onion slices before adding it to my bowl of phở or ask the taquero for grilled onions instead, I’m still able to enjoy my favorite foods.
  4. Along with #3, garlic is a staple in Asian cuisine. Growing up, I knew I needed to finish up my homework soon the moment the delicious smell of garlic filled the house because it meant my mom was about to complete the last step of dinner: sautéing vegetables. I remember the stunned look on my mom’s face as I regained my senses when I entered her kitchen and went, “What’s that awful smell?!” to which she responded, “. . . I was making your favorite, garlic green beans.” But luckily, as with onion, this is something that seems to be resolving with time as well.
  5. I touched on this a bit earlier, but fried foods . . . and that includes chips. This has been a tough one because I love the feeling of a good *crunch*. My workaround? SAUCES! Using my favorite sauces, while discovering new ones in the process, has been such a blessing and helps mask the distorted tastes.
  6. You may have heard of this one: meats. What you might not know is that the distortion can happen on a spectrum. For me, chicken 🍗 tastes the most similar to before and is the least pungent. Then comes beef, which I can’t stand to eat on its own, like as a steak 🥩, but still tastes gr8 within a mixture of other flavors, like in a burger! The most pungent taste is pork 🥓, which has been a difficult workaround because so many recipes in my culture call for a pork-based broth.
  7. Not that I (will admit I) eat this, but an honorable mention is toothpaste, since it was my first indicator which alerted me to immediately self-isolate and prevented me from spreading it to my loved ones. Shout out to toothpaste, making your BADLs and COVID prevention possible since 1824! Toothpaste companies–feel free to recruit me for your next marketing campaign. Move aside, “recommended by 9 out of 10 dentists,” “potential early coronavirus detection tool” coming through! In all seriousness, all toothpaste tastes like what onion used to taste like, while mint and mint-flavors still taste the same. This COVID symptom is most mysterious, indeed.
  8. And last but definitely not least, coffee ☕. Every cup of coffee I’ve had in the last 20 months tastes burnt but I’ve found that using a dairy alternative really helps. My favorite has been oat milk, because its strong flavor overpowers and masks the burnt taste really well. However, I’ll let you in on the true caffeinated nectar of life which has sustained this tired graduate student so far–Guayaki’s organic yerba mate, but ONLY the flavor Enlighten Mint and ONLY in the can, NOT the bottle. Thank me later.

This experience, while something I would never wish upon anyone, deepened my appreciation for occupational therapy. The child labeled as a picky eater, the adult whose high perceived pain has them labeled as a malingerer, the older adult who resists polypharmacy . . . We are unable to fully understand other people’s very subjective experiences, so we cannot say with absolute certainty that there is one right way to experience this world. As OTs, we approach this subjectivity by making our care occupation-based. We make it client-centered, in order to figure out how to best meet unique needs and experiences.

The way we taste and smell is so closely tied to how we engage in our occupations and in life, in regards to nutrition, mindful eating, social participation, weight management, and mental health. But in a similar way to our perceived sensations, time is also subjective. I started something called “smell retraining therapy” and was often frustrated at how little my sensory gains were in comparison to the literature and testimonials. But I continue to remind myself that recovery is not linear and everyone’s trajectory will look different, including my own, so instead of rushing my progress, I’ve come to appreci8 the process.

(But still, the return of 🍟 could not come sooner.)