Helping COVID-19 long-haulers
Briona Arradondo reports.
Walking, biking and lifting weights all come easier now for Vanessa Hernandez. She survived COVID-19 with odds stacked against her in June 2021. She has pulmonary fibrosis and the virus damaged her lungs. After getting COVID-19, Hernandez said she spent three weeks in the ICU at Tampa General Hospital
“I couldn’t walk. I couldn’t do the basics. Just going to the bathroom, I was not able to do that,” said Hernandez. “It’s a whole journey. It’s very hard. It’s a hard journey because you’re going to have good days and not so good at all.”
After she was allowed to return home, she said she started physical and occupational therapy. Then in August, she started in AdventHealth Tampa’s cardiopulmonary rehabilitation program for long COVID-19 or post-COVID syndrome. The hospital started the program in last June, focusing on long hauler symptoms.
“Everyone is unique, very unique for sure with their symptoms, but the biggest ones for sure are shortness of breath, fatigue and anxiety,” said Caarn Hughes, the program’s team lead and a respiratory therapist at AdventHealth Tampa.
Along with mental health and neurological problems, organ damage are all possible with long COVID-19.
Treatment is becoming a specialty, and hospitals across the country are setting up specialized clinics. At AdventHealth Tampa, a team of nurses, cardiac physiologists and respiratory therapists help tailor breathing exercises, weight training, and even cold compresses for brain fog and migraines.
“The symptoms are not a joke. It’s very difficult to treat them. They have a lot of anxiety, a lot of depression, and we’re working daily to try to help these people get through this and navigate this process,” said Hughes, adding that their patients so far include people in their 30s to their 50s and patients who were marathon runners and swimmers. “We’re helping them get their lives back.”
Hughes worked on Hernandez’s recovery.
“She came to us and had a very long road before she even came here, and she just blew this out of the water,” said Hughes.
By November, Hernandez graduated the program, and the clinic celebrated the moment.
“I love to see the progress that they make. That graduation day is really special for everybody,” said Hughes. “They do a graduation walk in the gym. We actually play the pomp and circumstance song. We announce it and everybody claps.”
Hernandez needs less oxygen than she used to, although oxygen will be a permanent part of her life given her lung condition. She said her determination to get better got her through everything.
“It’s like looking back and being able to say I can’t believe that I was able to do that, to get better,” said Hernandez.
AdventHealth Tampa said patients generally come for 45 minutes to an hour for 36 visits. Hughes said they’ve had about 12 people finish the program so far.