Rehabilitation Institute of Michigan

Some COVID Patients Face a Long Road to Recovery  

For some COVID-19 patients who have survived severe illness, leaving the hospital is just a first step on a long road to recovery. 

After struggling to breathe and in some cases needing a ventilator, COVID survivors may face significant challenges in regaining their strength and mobility for everyday tasks like eating, walking and climbing stairs.  

Janine Heath

Janine Heath

That’s why Janine Heath, a clinical physical therapist specialist, started a COVID-19 Rehab Recovery Program at the DMC Rehabilitation Institute of Michigan in June 2020.   

“When COVID came out, we knew we had to do something for these people,” Heath said. “We knew people would have residual deficits from COVID.”  

And it’s not just the lungs that are affected by the virus. Heath said because of the lack of oxygen COVID-19 patients experience, systems across the body are impacted. 

“If you didn’t have oxygen getting to your brain for a specific amount of time, you’re going to have deficits,” Heath said, comparing the impacts of COVID to someone who almost drowned. “We know it affects your heart, your lungs, your strength, your brain.” 

Behavioral health concerns may also be lingering after a person recovers from the COVID illness, including depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.  

“It’s a scary thing not being able to breathe,” Heath said.  

COVID-19 survivors are often fatigued and feel very weak, Heath said. 

“If you’re struggling to breathe, just holding yourself upright is going to be a challenge,” Heath said, explaining that the body’s posture muscles play a key role in helping the body perform other movements.  

In the Rehab Recovery Program, physical therapists first assess a patient’s needs and mobility, taking into consideration how long they were hospitalized, how long they needed supplemental oxygen and if there was any damage from the ventilator before charting a path forward. Heath said the program can also help COVID patients who were not hospitalized for their illness but are having trouble regaining their strength post-COVID. 

As far as how long it takes to fully recover from COVID-19, it’s different for everyone, Heath said.  

“It depends on your preexisting conditions, your age, your weight, did you have problems before?” Heath said. “With COVID, your entire body is struggling to get oxygen. You’re in a constant hyperventilatory state. Your body is working really hard to breathe.”  

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Photo credit: Courtesy of DMC

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