Some individuals are able to actively recover from COVID-19 while in isolation at home. However, those in a hospital’s intensive care unit (ICU) can find themselves sedentary in a hospital bed for many days to many weeks. These individuals often experience complications, such as physical impairments, which would require guidance from a medical professional long after the coronavirus has left their system.
Physical therapists (PTs) have been assisting patients to physically recover from critical illness, and have worked persistently to deliver quality care in a new and safe environment during the pandemic. They have been the beacon of strength patients need to manage the aftereffects of COVID-19 and begin their recovery journey.
“Patients affected by COVID-19 primarily have weakness and a severe lack of oxygen in their blood,” says Ashok Suratkal, lead inpatient physical therapist at Sharp Chula Vista Medical Center. “Physical therapists get involved in the ICU to maintain a patient’s conditioning and prevent further weakness. We help improve their strength and activity tolerance to help decrease length of stay in the hospital, which is shown to be hugely beneficial in the overall long-term recovery of patients.”
Simple movements that were once overlooked before an illness — getting out of bed, sitting up or walking a short distance — can seem like an uphill battle when someone is working to regain their strength. These specialists have been the helping hands of the pandemic, mobilizing patients as soon as it is safe, and empowering them to focus on a slow and steady rehabilitation.
“When their lungs recover to a decent level to allow for some activity, we help them to gradually increase movement while making sure they still have enough oxygen reserves to flow to their brain and other vital tissues,” says Suratkal. “We teach them how to pace themselves, recognize signs of low blood oxygen levels, and take them through gradual progressive activities to get back to their prior level of activities. PTs also teach breathing exercises that help improve lung capacity. We monitor oxygen saturation levels closely and titrate oxygen as appropriate.”
PTs are instrumental when evaluating a patient’s progress and physical stability to improve patient outcomes and reduce the possible risk of readmission.
“Physical therapists also help to make decisions to determine whether a patient is safe to go home independently, needs assistive devices or home health, or requires further subacute care,” Suratkal says. “Patients who continue to have persistent weakness and are not back to their prior level of activity can continue to receive rehab in an outpatient setting, where they will receive higher levels of gradual progressive strengthening exercises.”
Whether a patient’s goal is to run a marathon, play with their kids, or simply take their dog for a walk, physical therapists might very well be the key to safeguard the continuity of care so that patients can move forward to a new way of living.