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The Road Back From COVID, With Physical Therapy and Hope

Wednesday, May 19, 2021 6:31 PM

Astrid Maldonado, 38, arrived at her first physical therapy appointment in a wheelchair, tethered to a portable oxygen tank by a clear tube in her nose. After a month-long stay on Glenbrook Hospital’s COVID unit, which included 14 days on a ventilator, she was grateful to be alive but unsure her spirit and body could fight the next battle—recovery.

Pictured: Astrid Maldonado (right) and her son, Giovanni (left). 

“When I came off the ventilator, my body felt so heavy that I could barely move,” said the Chicago career counselor. “I had no strength. I could not even open a milk carton. The nurse had to do it for me.”

Greeting Maldonado that morning was NorthShore Physical Therapist Jonella Black, PT, who was deeply aware of the unique emotional and physical challenges of patients who had battled COVID-19. Each patient’s journey to recovery was different. ‘How long will it take for me to get better?’ is a common question without a common answer.

But Black sensed an inner strength in her new patient that she could tap into.

“I wanted to get better so I could take care of my son,” Maldonado said, referring to Giovanni, 4. “Just to run around the house with him or lift him out of the tub and carry him to his room.”

Maldonado doesn’t know how she contracted the virus. Her husband and son also became sick, but Maldonado was the only one in the family who was hospitalized. She came off the ventilator on Nov. 25, oblivious to the severity of the virus’s rampage throughout her body.

Her limitations were a powerful reminder of what she had survived. Even with portable oxygen and a walker, Maldonado struggled to shuffle 50 feet. Her lungs were struggling to get enough oxygen into her bloodstream. Nurses bumped up her oxygen to 4 liters. Oxygen is an essential nutrient for every organ in our bodies.

After Maldonado was released, she started outpatient physical therapy where Black monitored her oxygenation levels and pulse as she carefully took her first steps on a treadmill. If her oxygen saturation level dropped below 90%, all exercise was stopped. Maldonado was also off balance because the nerves in her legs had been damaged.

Pictured: Jonella Black (right) and a patient. 

Jonella Black

“When she first came in, she couldn’t stand without using her arms. That gives you an idea of how weak she was,” Black recalled. “She could walk for five minutes but it was really slow, about one mile per hour.”

Black also focused on breathing exercises to expand Maldonado’s lung capacity. Within a month, she was weaned off portable oxygen, but was still using it at night.

“I wanted to get better so I could take care of my son. Just to run around the house with him or lift him out of the tub and carry him to his room.” -Astrid Maldonado, Chicago

“A lot of COVID survivors are very anxious about breathing,” Black said. “They feel like they are suffocating at night so they often will continue to use oxygen at bedtime until they feel like they are not going to suffocate.”

Gradually, over the course of three months, Maldonado went from walking five minutes with supplemental oxygen to walking 30 minutes at a pace of about 3 miles per hour—with no oxygen.

Toward the end of her physical therapy, Maldonado was working with 15-pound kettle balls. And through a gradual progression of resistance training, she was able to pick up her little Giovanni, all 38 pounds.

“I’m feeling much better now and more hopeful, especially since I now have my first vaccine dose,” Maldonado said. “I’m feeling hopeful things will get better for everyone, not just me.”

NorthShore’s physical therapists perform thorough patient evaluations to develop individualized treatment plans for a broad range of conditions, including orthopaedic and neurological conditions, cancer, wounds, dizziness, urinary incontinence, and more. As further support, NorthShore’s occupational therapists patient-centered programs include driver rehabilitation, hand therapy, low vision and vision rehabilitation, lymphedema rehabilitation, and neurological rehabilitation.