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Commentary: The Hospital that Treated the First Known COVID-19 Patient in the State Sees a Silver Lining

As the world opens up again, many of us are starting to imagine life after COVID-19. But for some survivors of the disease, life will not return to “normal” for months, or even years.

Many people who suffered severe illness went on to experience post-intensive care syndrome (PICS), a set of physical problems that include weakened muscles, issues of judgment or cognition and sometimes mental health problems. These patients have required intensive rehabilitation to learn how to walk and talk, and even swallow again.

Unfortunately, the World Health Organization found that rehabilitation services were disrupted in 63% of countries during the pandemic. Even in our own backyard, hospitals were shifting services away from rehabilitation to make room for more intensive care unit beds.

Hoag had the privilege of treating the first known patient with COVID-19 in the state, and our Fudge Family Rehabilitation Center had the unique fortune to be able to grow to accommodate more COVID survivors from Hoag and the surrounding community, as well as our traditional neurological, orthopedic, and cardio-pulmonary patients.

In fact, we expanded bed capacity and staff by 60%. We feel blessed to have the community and leadership support to make sure that our patients not only survive but thrive.

This allowed us to see the pandemic through a different lens, one that colors the way we anticipate what post-pandemic life will be like.

For example, while the headlines focused on death, our patients stayed with us for a few weeks to more than a month, depending on the individual. They include the business executive working hard to regain her cognitive abilities so she could return to work. The grandfather who wanted to be mobile enough to babysit his grandchildren again. The father who pushed through “boot camp” physical therapy to be able to take a walk on the beach with his family.

What we saw from our vantage point were stories of triumph and positivity, with hundreds of people pulling together resources to get through this pandemic and regain independent living. It’s their stories that we think of when we think of how this pandemic will end.

We also think of the physical therapists and assistants and occupational therapists and assistants, who worked with patients on our specialty equipment, in our therapy garden and in our specialized treatment spaces. We think of the nurses and dedicated social workers who helped recovering patients gain confidence and successfully connect back with family and loved ones.

We think of the psychologist, who has been an incredible addition to the program as people are adjusting to life-changing events. And we think of our speech pathologists and recreational therapist helping to strengthen and return the quality and vitality of life back.

COVID took everyone by surprise, but our medical community learned quickly. For example, our medical teams realized early on how important it is to wean people off of respirators as quickly as possible to reduce the risk of PICS and help patients regain their physical strength. We also proved the importance of sticking with best practices. The early days of the pandemic were chaotic globally, but here at Hoag, we made sure that our patients received the appropriate therapies and performed the exercises and treatment that contributed to their recovery.

One of the most important takeaways for us is that we don’t have to settle. Nobody, whether they suffered a stroke or battled COVID-19, needs to accept that their worst day is the norm. A majority of our COVID-19 rehabilitation patients have been able to return to their regular daily life.

It hasn’t been easy, and the road ahead is likely still full of twists and turns. But when we imagine life after COVID, we see a comprehensive team of specialists, physicians, therapists, nurses, families and patients forging a path toward wellness — together.

Dr. Keyvan Esmaeili and physical therapist Mark Glavinic are affiliated with Hoag Hospital.

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