“I’ve learned from COVID, it’s one step forward—well, two steps forward now with Madonna—and one step back,” Ali O’Connor, an Omaha woman and COVID-19 survivor, said. “It’s a unique virus, but Madonna gives a lot of inspiration and guidance to get through it.”
The 57-year-old is still recovering after being diagnosed with COVID in November 2021. The virus caused several emergency room visits, even weeks after the initial infectious period. It started with the inability to catch her breath, then came rib pain, lung pain, extreme fatigue and even dexterity issues.
“With my particular situation, my care team has explained that it’s my fight-or-flight system that’s the problem,” Ali said. “My fight-or-flight went into gear when the virus hit me, and it has never really shut off.”
As her symptoms persisted and new ones arose, Ali became frustrated, both with herself and with others, whom she said were often dismissive of her experience.
“I think people who are not on the front lines and are not truly dealing with the depths of this every day, are becoming a bit indifferent and even callous toward anybody going through it,” Ali said. “That can be really disheartening.”
After hearing about Madonna’s outpatient post-COVID clinic, Ali felt a sense of hope. She asked her primary care provider for a referral. Since February 2022, she has been a patient in the clinic, participating in weekly physical, occupational and speech therapies specially designed for people experiencing long-term COVID symptoms.
“I think when you hear physical therapy or occupational therapy, you picture going in the gym and really going at it, but in reality, it’s teaching people how to breathe again,” Ali said. “It’s funny because you never really think about how much energy you use to breathe and how you breathe. To be so cognizant of it and have to learn how to do it all over again has been a journey.”
Ali is not alone in her struggle with the lingering effects of COVID. Across both campuses, Madonna has served nearly 500 patients who are recovering from the virus.
“They’ve ranged anywhere in age from 14 to 90, but the bulk of what we’re seeing is in that 40-to- 60-year-old range,” said Allison Carson, a speech therapy clinical supervisor at Madonna. “We’re seeing a lot of these patients coming in with various symptoms. A lot of brain fog, fatigue, poor energy conservation, and a lot of difficulties just going about their daily life. We’re also seeing a really large component of the mental health stress these patients are having that is really impacting their ability to get back to what they love.”
With a unique model system approach, care teams collaborate with Madonna’s Research Institute for Rehabilitation Science and Engineering to make a streamlined approach across campuses for these patients. Teams are collecting data from patients’ initial evaluation, through their treatment program into discharge to track measurable improvement. They are also aggregating and reviewing the data collected as well as evaluating the latest COVID research, identifying trends and establishing best practices in COVID-19 rehabilitation.
In Ali’s case, the physical improvements have been evident. She and her care team were able to track her progress and chart important benchmarks in her recovery.
“They’ve been able to show me evidence; I’m improving in these areas and these areas and these areas,” Ali said. “That’s an inspiration to me while I’ve been on a pretty dark road. Knowing that I am actually traveling on it, moving forward and having that forward momentum, has been paramount in my recovery emotionally.”
On her more difficult days, care team members like Carson are quick to remind Ali of just how far she’s come since February.
“The first day I met Ali, she came into my office and couldn’t even sit in a chair appropriately,” Carson said. “She was in the fetal position, struggling with breathing, struggling with pain and just overall comfort.”
In speech therapy with Carson, Ali worked through respiratory management – exercises and compensations that she could do to help increase the efficiency of her respiratory system and re-gain her ability for conversational speech. Carson would often utilize manual therapy, similar to a physical therapist, on Ali’s respiratory muscles to relax them and make them move more efficiently and pair that breathing with her speech.
“She has made really great progress, and it’s been wonderful to see,” Carson said. “On our last visit, she was comfortably sitting in the chair in my office. As much as that’s not measurable, to her that made a huge difference.”
Carson added the team is seeing an increased number of patients who benefit from mental health services in addition to the physical, occupational and speech rehabilitation services. Indeed, Ali is grateful for the holistic approach her care team has taken to managing her post-COVID symptoms.
“At Madonna, they immediately validated everything I’m going through, and they continue to do that through this whole journey,” Ali said. “They have not only given me the tools, but they’ve also given me friendship through this. They say, ‘Don’t worry about what anybody else is saying or thinking. Just get yourself through this and let us help you do it.’ They really took me by the hand and have given me the emotional support that I needed.”
Madonna is ramping up its post-COVID clinic services to help serve more people in the Lincoln and Omaha communities.
“We would love to get to the point where this clinic could offer things like support groups and peer volunteers and maybe even some group therapy,” Carson said. “We know there’s a lot of community need, so we are trying to grow these volumes so this population of people has someone they can lean on and resources they can seek.”
If you or someone you know is experiencing post-COVID symptoms and could benefit from Madonna’s post-COVID clinic services, contact your health care provider for a referral. A member of the clinic team will call you to get background information so the program can be tailored to your specific needs.