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Lifting long COVID brain fog with speech therapy

By The Health News Team | September 21, 2023
Susan Bernhardt of San Diego, with her husband

Susan, pictured with her husband, is back to doing the things she loves after undergoing treatment for her long COVID-19 symptoms.

More than three years after the COVID-19 pandemic began, it’s increasingly clear the virus isn’t going away anytime soon. For some, their COVID symptoms haven’t gone away either.

Susan Bernhardt, 67, tested positive for COVID-19 in January 2021. She had severe symptoms and took several months off work to recover. By the spring, Susan felt ready to return to her job as a Sharp registered nurse and hit the ground running. However, it wasn’t long before she noticed something wasn’t right.

“I started feeling exhausted all the time,” Susan says. “I could hardly get up and down the stairs. I couldn’t make meals. I felt like I couldn’t do the things I used to be able to do.”

When debilitating symptoms persist

Susan’s story is not uncommon. It’s estimated that anywhere from 5% to 30% of adults experience long-term effects from infection, known as long COVID-19. The symptoms are wide-ranging and often debilitating.

In addition to the persistent fatigue, Susan was also grappling with severe headaches and brain fog that left her incapacitated. She was having difficulty with thinking, concentration and memory, and struggled with tasks that were seemingly ordinary before she got sick.

“I was petrified of driving because I couldn’t concentrate on anything,” Susan says. “I couldn’t go grocery shopping or read for more than 15 minutes. I felt useless.”

The hobbies that once brought her joy also faded into the background. An avid baker and home cook, she found herself unable to follow even a simple recipe. Hours spent cross-stitching — an activity she once cherished — dwindled to mere minutes and made her feel drained.

Finding answers — and hope

Seeking answers and relief, Susan consulted her Sharp Rees-Stealy primary care doctor who assessed her and diagnosed her with long COVID. By that time, her fatigue and brain fog were so debilitating, she made the difficult decision to retire early.

Susan was referred to Jordan Weber, a speech pathologist at Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Centers, and started her journey toward recovery. Speech pathologists are uniquely qualified to help in these situations because they are trained to evaluate and treat cognitive-communication disorders.

Weber has worked with dozens of long COVID patients. She teaches strategies to help strengthen cognitive function and manage brain fog — a common long COVID symptom, which is described as impaired concentration, thinking and memory. She tailors the therapy to each patient’s needs, with a focus on the skills that are most important to their daily life and priorities.

“Let’s look at your day,” Weber says. “Let’s figure out how to break down your tasks into smaller pieces to manage cognitive fatigue.”

Much to be thankful for

When Susan’s first Thanksgiving living with long COVID was approaching, she and Weber focused on gradually getting her back to cooking. Instead of diving into a recipe from start to finish in a single day, Susan was encouraged to take it step by step.

“On Monday, we had her only read the ingredients,” Weber explains. “Tuesday, she would read the instructions. Then, Wednesday, she would gather the cookware, and so on.”

Slowly but surely, Susan noticed improvements in her cognitive abilities. Today, she’s back to doing many of her favorite things — including cooking and crafting.

“Jordan was a lifesaver,” Susan says. “She gave me my life back. Even my husband appreciates how much she’s helped me manage the condition.”

While Susan says speech therapy has given her the tools to work with her symptoms, she knows she still has a long road ahead. “Am I back to where I was before all this started? No, but I feel like I have long COVID under control now thanks to my treatment,” Susan says. “It’s a journey.”

If you suspect you might have long COVID, talk with your doctor. Your care team can assess and diagnose the condition appropriately to determine if it is long COVID-19 or other related conditions.

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