Darren’s story began in March 2020 when he arrived home from a long day of work as a hospital physical therapist, so exhausted that he fell into bed. He awoke the next morning with fever, shortness of breath, and pain. Recognizing these as COVID-19 symptoms, he isolated himself for 10 days before returning to work. For the next six months, Darren worked at the hospital with lingering fatigue and shortness of breath before finally embarking on a graded exercise program to increase his activity levels. But instead of getting stronger, Darren struggled to walk on his work commute and arrived sweating, short of breath, dizzy, and pale. Then simple activities like showering, walking from the bed to a sofa and even watching tv or reading left him exhausted.
Heather-Elizabeth is a 36-year old corporate trainer who started having a fever and feeling fatigued in April, 2020. Her fever rose to 103F and she developed gastrointestinal issues over the next several weeks. Then she began to have trouble breathing and her blood oxygen levels dropped dangerously low. When advanced COVID-induced pneumonia showed up on X-ray, Heather-Elizabeth was admitted to the hospital and was placed in a medically induced coma on a ventilator for a month. In the process, blood clots formed in her leg and she developed left-sided body weakness with walking difficulties. Now over a year later, she still has a chronic lung condition and experiences chronic pain and mobility issues. She has been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes with visual changes requiring insulin injections several times per day. While she once had an excellent memory, she now posts sticky note reminders everywhere to accommodate for brain fog.
April from Boise, Idaho was young and healthy and had been vaccinated for COVID-19 in January, 2021, but in July she was diagnosed with coronavirus. She was relieved that the course of illness was short, but as time went on she became increasingly fatigued and was unable to do even simple housekeeping tasks without sweating, and her pulse raced to 160 beats per minute. Then muscle and joint pain and dehydration began. The more active she was, the worse she felt the following day.
Darren, Heather-Elizabeth and April’s real-life stories are a sampling of the experiences of the growing number of COVID survivors. These “long haulers” are no longer contagious and test negative for COVID, but experience persisting function-limiting symptoms, uncertainty, and stress.
Studies show that more than one-half of unvaccinated COVID survivors and almost one-fifth of those few who have had vaccine break through experience one or more of a broad array of persisting physical and psychological symptoms, regardless of the severity of their initial illness. Many can only return to work part-time and some cannot work at all. (No data is available yet for the Omicron or future variants-stay tuned, I am following this!) The good news is that physical therapists have the expertise and tools to help guide long haulers along the road to recovery. Furthermore, exercise practitioners who are well-versed in the challenges long haulers face can offer help and hope for medically stable “graduates” of these programs who have lingering symptoms. Collaboration between therapists and community exercise providers can enhance a smooth transition for COVID long haulers from a rehab setting to community-based exercise venues. Community exercise providers need to be aware of the special considerations impacting this population as they work with them in personal training and group situations, to avoid triggering acute symptoms, set backs and relapse.
Please join me and Mary Wykle at the ATRI National Aquatic Therapy Conference in Chicago on April 9, 2022 as we share important information about the transition to safe and effective post-rehab long COVID interventions. Our presentation will highlight the gentle aquatic body mind practice of Ai Chi as a tool for addressing many of the most common persisting sequelae facing individuals with Long COVID.
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