The Star-Herald

Life regained after Long COVID with help of therapy program

PRESQUE ISLE,  Maine – Being diagnosed with COVID-19 can mean so many different things. Some may have major health issues leading to hospitalization or even death, while others may have no symptoms at all. What can be just as hard to predict, and devastating for those going through it, is the diagnosis of Long COVID weeks after a person’s initial infection.

We now know that no matter what level of severity a person may have with their initial infection or their overall general health, all have the potential to be afflicted by Long COVID. What is frustrating is that Long COVID conditions can present as different types and combinations of health problems for different lengths of time.

Aron Chalou of Presque Isle is one who knows this frustration all too well.  A registered nurse and mother of two, she was a healthy, active woman when she was diagnosed with COVID-19 in July of 2021. Ten weeks after having COVID-19, she was still experiencing symptoms.

“After the acute phase of my COVID infection, I wasn’t getting better and, in many ways, I was getting worse. I had multiple trips to the emergency room and to my PCP before I was formally diagnosed with Long COVID. I received the diagnosis at Mercy Hospital’s COVID clinic. By that time, I had started outpatient physical and speech therapy at AR Gould. The clinic told me that therapy was my best option for recovery but warned that it could take up to two years before I was back at my baseline,” Chalou said. 

Chalou’s symptoms included “brain fog” or confusion, vertigo, migraines, insomnia, physical weaknesses, loss of balance, shortness of breath, irregular heartbeat, high blood pressure, and extreme fatigue.

She worked closely with Rachel Emery, a physical therapist at AR Gould Hospital, as well as speech therapists Anthony Briscoe and Kayla Trask, to help her recover from her Long COVID symptoms. The therapy is part of the new Long COVID Recovery Program offered by Northern Light AR Gould Hospital. Chalou was one of the first patients treated in the program.

“When COVID-19 first hit Aroostook County, we quickly implemented technology and treatment techniques to help our hospitalized patients,” said Heather Caron, manager of AR Gould’s inpatient and outpatient rehabilitation therapy programs. “However, our therapy team had friends and family who were impacted by COVID and saw first-hand the gap in services between their inpatient stay and their return to being fully functional post-recovery. We quickly realized that patients who were hospitalized were only a portion of the overall COVID population that needed additional services.”

The therapy team developed a multidisciplinary approach to recovery. The core team includes a physical, occupational, and speech therapist. Other specialized areas are brought in as needed, such as respiratory therapy, pulmonology, neurology, cardiology, psychology, and others as appropriate depending on a patient’s specific needs. 

Working with Aron was an eye-opening experience. After the first treatment session, it became clear that basic exercises were too much for her to tolerate, and I had to completely change my treatment approach,” explained Emery. “Aron and I had to reduce treatment techniques to coordinating her breathing and then coordinating her breathing with body movement, until she could tolerate even the most basic exercises. All of this was done in a dimly lit room, with noise reduction.” 

Since she has started working with Long COVID patients like Chalou, Emery has learned that each patient requires different treatments. 

“One thing that became evident right away is that no two Long COVID patients are alike. All treatment plans must be very individualized for success and can range from the most basic breathing exercises to more involved cardiovascular conditioning, vestibular management, strength training and more,” she said. 

Chalou has been documenting her journey through Facebook. She would explain the good and the bad days, how it was hard for her to be a patient and not a provider while going to rehab two days a week and many other things. 

“I initially posted about having COVD on my social media because it seemed like the quickest way to let everyone know why I had ‘disappeared’ from regular life. I was surprised to receive dozens of private messages from people thanking me for sharing my experience. So many people expressed embarrassment and shame about having COVID themselves, which made me incredibly sad. I thought if I continued to post publicly, it would help put a face and a name to the reality of COVID in our community. I hoped it might help someone pause before saying something hurtful and provide support to someone that was hurting. I’ve met some incredible people through those posts,” she said.

Aron graduated from the Long COVID Recovery program at the end of May and continues to improve and regain the life she thought she would never have again. 

“My symptoms continue to improve. I recently hit the one-year anniversary of my initial COVID infection; I feel like the strong, independent, intelligent woman I was before COVID. In some ways, I am stronger than ever as I continue to face each new challenge one breath at a time,” said Chalou.

Those who feel they may be suffering from Long COVID can ask their primary care provider for a referral for an evaluation by the therapists in the Long COVID Recovery program. The team will evaluate the patient’s medical and COVID history; screen for emotional, psychological, and cognitive impairment; and assess physical impairments and how these pertain to activities of daily living. Based on results, they develop an individualized treatment plan and determine if other referrals are needed.

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