Coronavirus: Sickest patients face long recovery

By | May 8, 2020

Despite the horrific death toll caused by the coronavirus, many thousands of people have now survived the experience of having Covid-19.

The vast majority will have suffered relatively mild symptoms.

But those who were very ill and needed admission to intensive care, can face a long recovery.

That might mean weeks or months working with physiotherapists before they are even approaching recovery.

One of these is Roy Burton.

Mountain biking was one of Roy’s passions, and he would head out into the hills around his Yorkshire home several times a week.

But after falling ill with Covid-19, this previously fit and healthy 53-year-old is a shadow of his former self

As he became more sick, Roy needed help with his breathing, leading to six days in intensive care.

‘Absolutely shattering’

Now, back at home, he’s struggling with the reality of rehabilitation.

“When I first came home (from hospital), I just took everything off and my partner helped me have a shower.

“Just doing that, I had to sit and rest. I just couldn’t breathe.

“And then the next stage was to get myself up to bed – absolutely shattering, just no energy, not enough oxygen going in.”

And it’s not just the physical aftermath of the virus that has hit Roy hard.

“There’s all the mental scars of Covid-19,” says Roy.

“You’re constantly worried: Are you going to infect somebody? Are you still infected? Are you going to get it again?”

Both the virus and the treatment needed to save a life can have a profound impact on patients.

The virus can leave them with scarring on the lungs – which makes it difficult to breathe – as well as extreme fatigue.

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And an extended period immobile in intensive care can leave muscles withered, and can even affect brain function.

‘Growing number are going to need a lot of help’

Intensive care consultant Carl Wardmann, from the Faculty of Intensive Care Medicine, says treating Covid-19 patients, many of whom needed to be on ventilators to help them breathe, has presented its own set of challenges.

“A term was coined which is called ‘post intensive care syndrome’ – which is if you’ve been critically ill, you could have a whole variety of these symptoms which could stop you getting back to your normal life.

“The way we’ve had to ventilate patients, for instance, is very different to what we normally do. Their lungs are so difficult to ventilate we’ve had to really anaesthetise them.

“The muscle-wasting is quite intense, which means we can’t rehabilitate them in intensive care.

“The other thing is, if they’re very heavily asleep, you can’t assess their brain, and we may miss patients that have some problems with brain function.”

Susan Calvert, the lead critical care physiotherapist at the Queen Alexandra Hospital in Portsmouth, says recovery can be a lengthy struggle for some.

“It can take some critical-care patients 18 months to really get back to their normal selves, psychologically, strength-wise, fatigue-wise.”

Ruth Ten Hove of the Chartered Society of Physiotherapists warns that a growing number of patients are going to need a lot of help in the coming months: “The response from the community will go on much, much longer, as people will take much longer to recover.

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“I think what’s really important at the moment is to start planning for that, and to think about a long-term rehabilitation strategy to enable the population to get back to full health and recovery, from both the pandemic and the period of lockdown as well.”

For many people, the initial illness caused by the coronavirus was just the beginning.

BBC News – Health