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Madonna Rehabilitation Hospitals

Avid hiker able to resume beloved outdoor activities through Madonna’s post-COVID clinic

June 28, 2023

Years of struggles

Sherri Magnett first contracted COVID-19 in October 2020. She went to Kansas to visit her mom, and on her drive home, dealt with a searing headache. From there, her symptoms continued to worsen. Sherri had all the classic signs of COVID-19—racing heartbeat, fatigue, gastrointestinal issues, breathing problems and brain fog—but she refused to go to a hospital. A family friend and registered nurse moved in with Sherri to care for her over the next 10 weeks.

“It was at the peak of hospitalizations and it was horrific what was going on,” Sherri remembers. “People were going into the intensive care unit, but they weren’t coming out. You couldn’t talk to your family once you got in and everything was so limited. I had made the decision that I’m staying here and if I’m going to go, I’m going to go.”

Flash forward nearly three years, and Sherri is continuing to heal from what is now known as post-COVID syndrome.

“After a year or two, I had accepted that maybe post-COVID was just how my life was going to be,” Sherri said. “I didn’t want it to be my new normal, but I had visited several doctors for each of my issues individually, and it got to the point they didn’t know what to do for me anymore.”

Between appointments with gastrointestinal doctors, pulmonologists, cardiologists and her primary care provider, Sherri was also hospitalized several times in 2021 and 2022. It was during a visit to the emergency room for acute hypothermia, when her body temperature spontaneously dropped nine degrees, and racing heartbeat that she finally got the guidance and direction she needed.

“The head cardiologist came out and said, ‘You know what? Your heart is in great shape, so it must be a wiring issue. The wiring in your system, something is wrong that is causing this. What is going on in your body makes absolutely no sense. I would like for you to go to this Madonna post-COVID clinic,’” she said.

Now, Sherri has an expert care team of physicians, therapists and researchers by her side as she navigates the highs and lows of a post-COVID diagnosis. Over six weeks, she spent hours in physical, occupational and speech therapies learning about evidence-based practices for retraining her nervous system as well as tools to mitigate symptoms. Neuropsychology also worked with her on ways to address the toll post-COVID took on her mental health.

Regaining control of her own body

Before she contracted COVID, Sherri was working full-time in a corporate project management role and was an avid hiker. Because of her symptoms, she had to scale back her responsibilities at work to a part-time basis, and stopped almost all physical activity. Physical therapist Jake Massey, PT, DPT, guided Sherri through utilizing diaphragmatic breathing and interval walking programs to gradually increase her activity tolerance.

“Early on for Sherri, she just needed to develop some sort of internal locus of control over her symptoms,” Massey said. “She needed to be able to start taking back parts of her life and develop a framework to getting back to what her normal life used to be.” Integrating small changes in slow increments started to pay off, and after six weeks of therapy, Sherri went from needing a daily nap to working out once or twice a day.

“Once she started seeing the tiniest bit of positive response, which really happened pretty quickly for her, I think she saw, ‘Ok, I really know what steps I need to take and I know how this is going to go,’” Massey said. “It turned very quickly from, ‘Here are some tools to start with,’ to her running with everything we gave her and us continuing to modify things appropriately to make sure she continued to have success.”

To up the challenge and help prepare Sherri for a return to her love of hiking with her family, Massey incorporated specialized technology, like the Proprio 4000 balance system, improving her stability and coordination on unsteady surfaces. Sherri celebrated her progress in physical therapy with a four-mile walk with her husband over Memorial Day weekend.

As she saw positive changes in her physical abilities, occupational and speech therapies helped Sherri sharpen her mental and cognitive abilities.

“I think a lot of times people don’t realize how much speech therapy can cover,” Megan Phy, a Madonna speech-language pathologist, said. “It’s not just talking. I worked with Sherri on her memory, concentration and focus. These are all things she needed to enhance her quality of life at work, at home and in conversation with family and friends.”

Phy and Sherri identified tips and tricks for word-finding, memorizing and synthesizing information and conserving mental energy. The pair used fun activities like scavenger hunts to put those strategies into use.

Acknowledging challenges and celebrating progress

Though Sherri’s symptoms were impacting her daily life before she started therapy at Madonna’s post-COVID clinic, she wasn’t sure if she’d see any results.

“I’d say its 90-95% of the patients that are coming in that are saying they have mild symptoms or this isn’t bad enough,” Phy said. “They think to themselves other people have it worse. Honestly, those are the people that we’re seeing. People who weren’t hospitalized or people who may have had a relatively mild case of COVID but its impacting their quality of life. They can’t do their work tasks. They can’t participate at home or in the community, and that’s something we can help with here at Madonna.”

“It’s great to not think you’re crazy,” Sherri said. “It’s wonderful to not have people look at you like there’s something wrong with you and for the clinicians to go, ‘Yeah, we hear that. Yes, that’s common.’ With help from therapy, my body is relearning to coordinate the heartrate, the brain pathways, blood pressure, breathing, my GI tract and my sleep schedule. That’s a lot to relearn, but I’m also learning the tools I need to calm my systems down and actually heal so I can get on with my life.”

Sherri can hardly believe the progress she’s made. But it didn’t just happen overnight.

“They will give you the tools that you need to get well, but the onus is on you as well,” Sherri said. “They can show you all the things in the world, but if you don’t go home and practice the breathing techniques or you don’t follow through on balancing your energy levels, you’re not going to get better. But, if you really want to improve your life and if you really want to have back what you had before getting COVID, then this is the place to be and these are the people that are going to help you.”

Back to the future

Looking ahead, Sherri said she’s starting to make life plans again. A year ago, she began to consider ways to scale back her busy life and retire early because she thought work would be off the table with her post-COVID symptoms. Now, she’s back to work, planning vacations with her husband, lifting weights, hiking with her family and even registered for scuba diving lessons.

“I’m so hopeful because I’m getting my life back,” Sherri said. “It took a little guidance, but now it’s all up to me and monitoring myself to make sure I’m balancing my priorities with my energy levels. It’s incredible what Madonna is doing, using the best medical knowledge available to help people get back on with their lives again.”

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