Pulmonary rehabilitation program offers post-COVID relief

By The Health News Team | June 24, 2022
Jen-Lih Wilson of San Diego

Sharp Grossmont Hospital’s Pulmonary Rehabilitation Program helped Jen-Lih Wilson improve his breathing after having COVID-19.

A line of sweat glistens on his forehead as Jen-Lih Wilson, 60, finishes the last few minutes of cycling on a stationary bicycle. Near the bicycle is an oxygen tank attached to breathing tubes fitted to his nostrils.

This is Jen-Lih’s fourth month in Sharp Grossmont Hospital’s Pulmonary Rehabilitation Program. He was referred to the program in March 2022, after being treated for COVID-19 pneumonia at a Veterans Administration (VA) hospital. For Jen-Lih, being released after nearly a month in the hospital — much of that time spent in the intensive care unit — did not mean his COVID-19 days were behind him. After he left the hospital, he had mental and physical hardships as he eased back into his daily life.

Typically fit and active, the retired Navy jet engine mechanic had gained nearly 40 pounds of what he calls “steroid weight,” a reference to the steroids and other medicines used during his recovery. Breathing also remained difficult. Jen-Lih relied on an oxygen tank while at home and when running errands.

However, since beginning the program, it was the coaching he received from staff that has motivated Jen-Lih to overcome his post-COVID health challenges. The program includes trained respiratory care practitioners who are assisted by exercise physiologists.

Taking an active role in recovery
Initially given advice from his VA care team to take it easy, the respiratory care practitioners at Sharp Grossmont including April Brohamer, a pulmonary rehabilitation specialist, suggested the opposite. They encouraged him to take an active role in his recovery.

“I entered the program and April did not want me to sit around,” says Jen-Lih. “She wanted me to push myself, and that gave me hope. I come in here and I don’t waste my time. I push myself to my limit — to a point where I can feel my lungs stretch, which is what I need to do.”

“Prior to COVID-19, Jen-Lih was involved in a consistent routine of high-intensity extracurricular activities,” says Brohamer. “His favorite pastime was reconnecting with his wife on the dance floor. Knowing his previous activity level and his capabilities, it made sense to design a program for him that would help push him to improve his breathing capacity to what it was before he got COVID.”

Making progress — and friends
During his weekly rehabilitation appointments, Jen-Lih walks on the treadmill and cycles on the stationary bicycle, which help him strengthen and clear his lungs.

“Patients with chronic lung disease usually present with shortness of breath that is progressive,” says Lonni Ocampo, a respiratory care practitioner with the program. “They can look back and realize they had shortness of breath years before coming to pulmonary rehab. Also, COVID-19 survivors suffer from the rapid onset of shortness of breath. We encourage exercise, provide motivation and compassion. But most of all, we help them gain their confidence.”

Jen-Lih enjoys the camaraderie he has with staff and other patients in the program. He says the staff is great.

“I like how encouraging they are, how they make it fun and how they engage everyone,” says Jen-Lih. “We exercise to music and tell jokes. It’s just a fun environment to recover and regain strength.”

April Brohamer, Jen-Lih Wilson and Lonni Ocampo

Left to right: April Brohamer, Jen-Lih Wilson and Lonni Ocampo.

Within weeks of starting the program, Jen-Lih and his care team noted an improvement in his breathing.

“I had an in-person appointment with my pulmonary doctor just six weeks after starting the rehab program, and my doctor was amazed at the progress I made in a short amount of time,” Jen-Lih says. “My lungs were clearer on CT scans. He did not classify me as long-haul COVID, but rather post-COVID recovery.”

As the one-year mark of his diagnosis approaches, Jen-Lih hopes that by September 2022, he will be fully recovered to where he will no longer need to rely on an oxygen tank to help him breathe.

“I can walk around the neighborhood without oxygen and also talk on the phone without it,” he says. “But I still keep oxygen nearby for strenuous activities, like exercising. And recently, I was able to meet one of my goals — to salsa dance with my wife again.”

Learn more about Sharp HealthCare’s Pulmonary Rehabilitation Services and COVID-19 recovery programs.

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