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COVID-19 survivors regain smell thanks to ‘magician’ perfumer

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They had a nose for nothing this past year, but now some COVID-19 long-haulers can finally stop to smell the roses — thanks to a legendary perfumer who’s leading them on a $650 “fragrance journey.”

Perfumer Sue Phillips, who has created scents for Tiffany and Burberry, is helping virus survivors who’ve lost their sense of smell.

“A piece of my life was missing, and I’m elated that something dormant for more than a year is triggered. Now [my sense of smell] is on full blast,” said Tammy Farrell, 51, after her hourlong session at Phillips’ eponymous fragrance boutique on the Upper East Side. 

Farrell lost her ability to smell when she came down with the coronavirus in March 2020. The Long Island mom of three kept waiting for her nose to kick into action but, despite sniffing garlic powder and walking past fragrant bakeries, she had no luck.

“I figured I’d suck it up for a few weeks, but then weeks turns into months and months,” said Farrell, a customer success manager. She eventually sought out neurologists and had brain scans and blood work done, but everything turned up normal. “I couldn’t smell anything, and no one knew why. You just can’t help but cry,” she said, adding, “I couldn’t smell my favorite candles or my husband’s cologne. I couldn’t enjoy eating — it just became fuel for my body, not pleasure.”

Covid survivor Tammy Farrell regains her sense of smell after a year through a "fragrance journey."
COVID-19 survivor Tammy Farrell regains her sense of smell after a year through a “fragrance journey.”
Brian Zak/NY Post

When her daughter alerted her to a gas odor in the basement and Farrell couldn’t smell it, she knew she needed help. “When you can’t smell gasoline leaks, it’s a huge problem,” said Farrell. “I didn’t have any more options.”

Phillips, who has owned her custom perfumery for 12 years, launched the scent therapy healing program earlier this year.

“When smell is out of reach, it affects many realms of life, including eating and taste. People get very depressed … It’s devastating,” said Phillips. “People say their life is not worth living. Smell is such a big part of life’s pleasures.”

Perfume expert Sue Phillips (left) shows "fragrance journey" client Tammy Farrell how to smell with her brain.
Perfume expert Sue Phillips (left) shows “fragrance journey” client Tammy Farrell how to smell with her brain.
Brian Zak/NY Post

According to a study by the American Academy of Neurology, some 51 percent of people who lost their sense of smell due to COVID had not regained it five or more months later.

Starting at $650, clients get one meeting with Phillips (she also offers a Zoom option, where she sends smell strips ahead of time) and a custom fragrance to take home.

She blends scents using ingredients such as lavender, musk, amber and vanilla, which are divided between top, mid and base notes. The client then smells individual scented strips to help arouse the dormant sense.

It sounds simplistic, but Phillips said she has helped 20 people regain at least some of their ability to smell since the new year.

Last Thursday, as she went through various notes with Farrell, the perfumer gave specific commands: “Smell with your brain — try to absorb the aromas with your brain … your brain is fogged up.”

Suddenly, Farrell began to cry. “It smells lovely,” she said of a balsamic vanilla-scented strip. “It smells very rich. I haven’t smelled anything this strong, ever. This is a dream.”

The night after her one session, Farrell said she detected the taste of pepper in her dinner, and she's committed to doing her "homework," which includes smelling their own perfume, flowers and fruit throughout the day with a meditation-like focus.
Farrell received a customized scent using her three favorite smells from the session.
Brian Zak/NY Post

The night after her one session, Farrell said she detected the taste of pepper in her dinner, and she’s committed to doing her “homework,” which includes smelling their own perfume, flowers and fruit throughout the day with a meditation-like focus.

Days later, Farrell said she had smelled garlic, albeit faintly, for the first time in over a year, although she lamented she still can’t smell bacon or popcorn.

Even doctors working with COVID survivors are open to the therapy. “I think it’s interesting and exciting. There may be some opportunities with some stimulation with different scents,” said Dr. Yosef Krespi, an otolaryngologist at Lenox Hill Hospital who noted that two-thirds of the COVID survivors with longterm smell loss are women. “It’s like training or rehabilitation of . . . the nerves located at the roof of the nose. There’s an opportunity for ‘physical therapy’ [and] the re-learning of those scents.”

“I’m still in shock that it works,” said Phillips’ client Marissa Karen, a 27-year-old Google account manager from Soho. She lost her sense of smell after contracting COVID last March. “I went to a million different doctors, six or seven ENTs, a neurologist, and went on oral and nasal steroids to reduce inflammation. I left every doctor hysterically crying.”

COVID survivor Marissa Karen now smell trains with lemons to trigger memories.
COVID survivor Marissa Karen now smell trains with lemons to trigger memories.
Courtesy of Marissa Karen

She met with Phillips last week and could smell again after one session. “It’s associating smells with memories,” said Karen, who does her training with lemons. “I associate it with going to a lemon farm I went to in Sorrento in southern Italy where I had a lemonade and limoncello tasting.”

Added Karen: “You don’t realize how important smell is until you don’t have it anymore. I can walk outside now and smell the spring flowers blooming.”

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