One-of-a-kind post-COVID rehab program in Syracuse

Local News

SYRACUSE, N.Y. (WSYR-TV) — Year two into this pandemic, and Central New York doctors are seeing more people suffering from long-term impacts of COVID-19. They’re called long haulers.

In a one-of-a-kind program, those at Upstate Rehabilitation at Western Lights are doing what they can to treat long haulers using pulmonary physical therapy. It started about a year ago.

“It came about when we were discussing how patients were doing in the hospital and then upon discharge. They were still having shortness of breath and then we started hearing about the long-COVID symptoms,” said Dr. Matthew Bowman, a physical therapist and board-certified specialist in cardiovascular and pulmonary physical therapy.

Mark Hard, a COVID patient who recently got out of the hospital, was their first patient in June of 2020.

“I was there for a little over half a month but then was out of work for four months because when I left the hospital, I couldn’t walk even like 200 yards without losing my oxygen,” Hard said.

Hard also spent time in the ICU. After getting released, his lungs were damaged and he didn’t know where to return. He was referred by his doctor to Upstate Rehabilitation at Western Lights. Now, they’re operating a full post-COVID Rehabilitation Program out of there, too. Hard went there for a few months.

“Coming here, they basically gave me my life back so that I could be mobile, so that I could walk longer distances, and be able to function better,” Hard said.

Hard admits he’s still dealing with the long-term health effects of having COVID. Random, unexplained illnesses continue to pop up. But he knows he’s in a better place than if he didn’t get help after the hospital.

So many others just like Hard now get the same physical therapy.

“The main issue they come in with is fatigue and shortness of breath, that’s the biggest issue that people have,” Dr. Bowman said. “Often they’re on oxygen, where they weren’t before. There are patients that have comorbidities from before whether it’s obesity or hypertension or asthma or other breathing disorders. But we have several who were exercising regularly, who did not have any diagnosed issues, who are really some of the worst patients that we have.”

The physical therapists will first put their long-COVID patients on machines that get their bodies moving while they’re sitting down. They will monitor their heart rate and their oxygen the whole time. If patients do well there, they’ll move them onto another machine, like the treadmill.

“Most people are telling me they can’t stand and do the dishes or they can’t put dishes away. Which, it’s the standing, it’s the large muscles of the legs that are causing the problem. So those are the things that I really like to focus on during activity and exercise. It’s, let’s get those legs stronger within their abilities,” Dr. Bowman said.

And each patient is completely different. In a typical physical therapy session, therapists will push their patients. But with COVID long haulers, they’re learning they can’t do that.

“With post-COVID, if we push them into that intensity level, the next day they can feel headaches, difficulty concentrating. Some of them have described being hit by a train, hit by a bus, they just feel overly exhausted and can’t get out of bed,” Dr. Bowman said.

It may not be a cure for COVID, but they’re seeing slow and steady progress.

“Their mindset changes too because they’re realizing there is hope to start to feel better,” Dr. Bowman said.

If you’re a COVID long-hauler looking for treatment, you will need a doctor’s referral to go to Upstate’s program at Western Lights. For most people, post-COVID rehab will last three to four months. If brain fog is a major issue, they may recommend occupational or speech therapy. To contact them, click here.

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