A Novel Recovery: Arkansas Heart Hospital Bringing Quality of Life Back to Post-COVID Patients
Haven Jaggers was only 34 years old when she contracted COVID-19. She had no underlying issues; she was young, and she was in better physical shape than the average person. Before COVID, she regularly walked and jogged up to 3 miles, and went to rigorous workout classes. That’s what made it so surprising that she wound up hospitalized for five days on oxygen with COVID pneumonia.
It started on a Monday with a headache that wouldn’t subside. By Thursday, she had lost her sense of taste and smell. She developed a fever of 104.7 degrees and was having trouble breathing, so she went to the ER. She was sent home with medication and told to come back if she wasn’t feeling better in a few days. Three days later, her fever was still at 104, and she was back in the ER. This time, her oxygen levels had dropped, and the doctors admitted her to the hospital.
“I was so weak,” Jaggers remembers. “I could not make it from my bed to the bathroom without help. I would unhook from the oxygen and try to use the bathroom as fast as I could so I could get back to the oxygen because I couldn’t breathe. It was horrible.”
Jaggers remained in the hospital for five days before being sent home with oxygen. At home, recovery was long, slow and torturous. She still couldn’t walk across the room without stopping to catch her breath.
Her struggle to breathe continued even a month later when she finally went back to work. She couldn’t make it from the parking lot to her office or finish a sentence without running out of breath. At that point, her doctor suggested a new pulmonary rehab program specially created for post-COVID patients at Arkansas Heart Hospital (AHH).
Jaggers thought, “Yeah, I’m kind of at the end of my rope as far as thinking I can fight it off on my own; I need help.”
She started going to the AHH’s Strong Hearts Rehabilitation Program, beginning with 5-minute walks on a treadmill and working her way up from there. The limited workouts were disheartening at first, especially since she had been a very active person before she got sick. But she kept at it, and the support she got from the people at AHH made a world of difference.
“It helps so much to have someone push you and monitor your oxygen and help you with breathing exercises,” she says. They let her take breaks when she needed to and then encouraged her to get back in it. “That helped a lot, and at the end of the program, it gave me the mental and the physical energy to start exercising again on my own.”
Today, Jaggers feels like she’s about 90 percent back to her old self. She carries an inhaler around now for more extraneous workouts, and her senses of smell and taste haven’t fully recovered. Overall, she’s able to be much more active and more like herself. She’s grateful to the AHH program and to her community who rallied around her, bringing meals, helping unpack boxes after a move, and even helping her with some of her bills.
The Strong Hearts Program
The Strong Hearts Rehabilitation Center at Arkansas Heart Hospital is the state’s first post-COVID pulmonary rehabilitation program, and one of only five in the country. The program serves people, like Jaggers, who continue to deal with respiratory or cardiac symptoms more than four weeks after having COVID-19.
Studies show that half of those infected by the disease experience lingering health conditions such as coughs, difficulty breathing or heart palpitations. COVID-19 can affect any system within the body, whether it affects just one or multiple systems in one person. Severe cases can also provoke an autoimmune response that can attack the body’s own organs and tissues.
Stong Hearts Director Amanda Xaysuda sees cases like this firsthand.
“What we’re seeing now with post-COVID patients is a whole myriad of symptoms,” she says. “While some patients come in with shortness of breath, others come in breathing fine, but might have heart palpitations, or they feel like their heart is racing.”
Xaysuda explains that the purpose of the program is not to cure lung disease or respiratory illness; the goal is to help patients increase their exercise tolerance, help them get back to normal activities and improve their quality of life. AHH offers the post-COVID pulmonary rehab program at its flagship Little Rock campus, Encore Medical Center in Saline County and community clinics in Conway and Russellville.
Most patients take about 12 weeks to complete the program, during which they may work one-on-one with a coach or in a group setting. Like classic gyms, the centers offer treadmills, machines, free weights and group classes. However, unlike average gyms, the rehabilitation centers are medically supervised by a physician, exercise physiologists and registered nurses who are on-site at all times. These medical professionals can monitor EKG or oxygen levels while patients exercise to ensure a healthy, gradual increase in activity.
In Jaggers’ case, when she started the program, she could only walk 5 minutes on the treadmill without getting short of breath. She came in three times per week for one hour each session, and by the time she completed the program, she was able to walk 30 minutes on the treadmill at an incline. During her training, they worked on exercise tolerance with one-on-one and group exercises. She also participated in breathing retraining through exercises with her coach to open up her lungs and her airways, making it easier to get through exercise sessions.
According to Xaysuda, people of all ages are being referred to the post-COVID pulmonary program, and it’s really not that uncommon to see people as young as Jaggers. She has seen people in their 20s and even some teenagers come in — all the way up to a current patient who is 92 years old.
“Haven’s story is really typical of what we’re seeing in younger patients,” she notes. “They just lose the ability to do the things they did before. We focus on working with them on exercise progression and reducing those symptoms of shortness of breath.”
There is currently no waiting list for the program. Medicare and select private health insurance companies cover the services for qualifying individuals. Those interested in scheduling an appointment may call 501-978-3780, or email email@example.com.
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