For the media

Recovering from a COVID-19 pneumonia diagnosis

By The Health News Team | January 9, 2023
Maria Guevara with her caregivers at Sharp Memorial Hospital

Through Sharp Rehab’s COVID Recovery Program, Maria is getting back to living an active life.

In the summer of 2021, Maria Guevara, age 64, was enjoying life. She was retired from her job as the supervisor of records for the San Diego Police Department after serving for more than 36 years. And her days were full and active — spending time with her husband, meeting friends for lunch, and taking road trips to Northern California, Arizona and Utah to visit family.

In mid-August, Maria developed a cough and fever. She went to the Sharp Memorial Hospital Emergency Department and was diagnosed with COVID-19.

With no underlying health conditions and having mild symptoms, Maria could return home. Several days later, her condition began to worsen. When she started having difficulty breathing, her husband drove her back to the hospital and she was admitted. Maria was then diagnosed with COVID pneumonia.

The difference between COVID-19 and COVID pneumonia

According to Dr. Davies Wong, medical director of the Sharp Outpatient Pulmonary Clinic and a pulmonary disease specialist, COVID-19 and COVID pneumonia represent different severities of infection caused by the coronavirus. COVID-19 occurs when you are infected with the virus. Typically, you will have respiratory infection symptoms such as cough, congestion and fever.

However, in some individuals, the body’s immune reaction causes uncontrolled inflammation in the lungs, further damaging the cells and tissue that line the lung’s air sacs. These air sacs are crucial to normal breathing and delivering oxygen to the blood. The damage clogs the lungs and can cause the normally thin walls of the air sacs to become swollen and nonfunctional. The result is low oxygen levels and difficulty breathing, the hallmarks of COVID pneumonia.

When the damage is severe, it can become life-threatening and create long-term consequences for survivors. Approximately 15% of people who become infected with COVID-19 develop COVID pneumonia.

One household, two very different COVID experiences

Some people get COVID-19 and have very mild symptoms. Maria’s husband was diagnosed with COVID-19 and was better in two days. Maria was in the ICU for five weeks fighting for her life with chronic, debilitating health issues.

And after leaving the ICU, Maria was transferred to the Sharp Memorial patient care unit. She was weak, lacked muscle tone and could barely get out of bed. She also required supplemental oxygen.

However, there were moments Maria fondly recalls, such as when her respiratory therapist, Evan Summers, held her hand and comforted her during the tough times. Her physical therapist assistant, Maryette Kumphet, would help her walk down the hallway with her oxygen tank, pulling her wheelchair behind her. The staff even gave her a cake to celebrate her 65th birthday.

“I’m so blessed to have received such incredible care from this wonderful staff,” says Maria.

Facing an uncertain future

Maria was discharged from the hospital in mid-October 2021. While she had survived COVID-19, her struggles continued. She was constantly fatigued, had difficulty breathing and remained on supplemental oxygen.

Maria even cancelled a birthday brunch cruise with friends because she thought a full recovery was impossible. Every day, she felt like she was fighting for her life and didn’t see an end in sight.

In December 2021, Maria was referred to Sara Gleiss, RN, a Sharp Rees Stealy Medical Group pulmonary nurse practitioner. Gleiss diagnosed her with pulmonary fibrosis, a progressive disease that gets worse over time due to the amount of scarring in the lungs. Maria was told that her lungs could get worse and that she might need a transplant.

Maria’s “Christmas miracle”

Maria says she was at the lowest point of her life when Gleiss referred her to Sharp Rehab’s COVID Recovery Program. One week before Christmas, she received a call that she’d been accepted into the program and called it her Christmas miracle. At her first therapy session, she received a comprehensive evaluation and care plan to establish therapy goals.

“Maria wanted to be active again,” said Kathleen Kennedy, RRT, RCP, Pulmonary Rehabilitation Program supervisor at Sharp Memorial. “She didn’t want to be afraid to leave her house due to her breathing challenges.”

Kennedy started Maria’s therapy with breathing techniques while doing short walks on a treadmill. Maria wore a monitor so that Kennedy could keep an eye on her heart rate and oxygen levels during the workouts. Little by little, Maria began to increase her exercise while decreasing the amount of oxygen she used.

One day in February 2022, she was working out on the treadmill and was so focused that she didn’t realize that she had been off oxygen for 15 minutes. She cried when Kennedy told her. When Maria showed the video to Gleiss, she told Maria it was a miracle. Moreover, Maria learned she no longer needed a lung transplant — her participation in the program had been a resounding success!

“Maria was looking for hope when she entered our program,” said Kennedy. “But she’s the one who gave us hope that other patients could have success and get better.”

Life without oxygen — and well lived

With a positive attitude and ongoing support from her husband and the pulmonary rehab team, Maria continued to improve. She learned that her oxygen levels were 95% normal and her lungs were clear — no longer needing supplemental oxygen to survive. Maria celebrated by going on the long-delayed birthday brunch cruise with her girlfriends that she couldn’t manage the previous year. Maria’s faith kept her going and she’s thankful for her husband’s never-ending support in her recovery.

“Although long-term and serious complications are more commonly seen in the elderly and those with comorbidities, many patients who suffer from post-COVID-19 issues are young and were previously healthy,” says Gleiss. “Those that are vaccinated are much less likely to suffer from these chronic disability issues. Staying up to date on COVID-19 vaccination is of utmost importance to protect ourselves and our community.”

Maria continues to exercise and gets stronger every day. She’s in better shape now than when she was hospitalized and is motivated to stay healthy to do all the activities she missed while she was sick.

She now goes to the Pulmonary Rehabilitation Program to mentor post-COVID patients and provide them with hope. Everyone who learns her story is inspired. Moreover, Maria is grateful for the lifelong friends she met in the pulmonary program and considers them her second family.

“The staff at Sharp Memorial saved my life,” said Maria. “But the staff at Sharp Rehab brought me back to life.”

Learn more about COVID-19; get the latest health and wellness news, trends and patient stories from Sharp Health News; and subscribe to our weekly newsletter by clicking the "Sign up" link below.

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