Ashley Comrie was diagnosed with COVID-19 in April 2020, at the start of the outbreak in Canada.
She was admitted to a Toronto hospital with the virus, spent 60-days in isolation, and came out with an acquired brain injury and many other health deficits.
That is the havoc of COVID-19, the virus that has infected more than 111 million people in 200 countries, and killed 2.4 million.
“I had no idea just how much this would change my life,” says Ashley, a 38-year-old social worker. “I was healthy, I was fully functioning, I was working and contributing to society, and then this happened. It could happen to anyone.”
Ashley’s husband caught the virus at a grocery store, where the infection had been circulating among the staff. The store was later shut down.
Ashley is grateful she and her husband are alive, but the experience was particularly harrowing for her.
She went through the COVID-19 nightmare we’ve all heard so much about. She lost her sense of smell and taste; struggled to breathe and was put on oxygen in the intensive care unit; suffered a painful, hacking cough; had her lungs partially collapse; and was kept in a prone position for 12-hours a day, isolated from family and friends for months.
When she was finally well enough to be transferred to Bridgepoint Active Healthcare, a rehabilitation hospital in Toronto, she discovered she was having trouble thinking clearly and forming words.
Then, she suffered an onslaught of new symptoms— she lost strength in the left side of her body. “It looked like I’d had a stroke,” she says.
She was later diagnosed with an acquired brain injury from COVID-19, which led to these temporary changes in brain functioning.
At Bridgepoint, she began an intense rehabilitation program, including speech therapy, occupational therapy and physical therapy, some of which involved working on the hospital’s Rehab V2 Max™ Reformer.
“All of these things that I used to do before, like CrossFit, HIIT and yoga, I could no longer do because my body couldn’t handle it. I had to build up my strength and stamina from the ground up.
“I started with sitting up in my bed on my own, putting my feet on the ground, standing up, walking to the door and back. I was so deconditioned from lying in a hospital bed for so long. My body had been so concentrated on surviving,” she says.
The long road to recovery post-COVID-19
Ashley was physical therapist Ellen Leung’s first COVID-19 patient.
“It was certainly a challenge because not only did I not have any firsthand experience, but there also wasn't a clear understanding at the time about what was safe and what was contraindicated. Further, the clinical presentations of so-called 'long-haulers' were still being elucidated, and so seeing these stroke-like issues was entirely unexpected,” says Ellen, who works at Bridgepoint.
Ellen’s greatest concern was Ashley’s reduced cardiovascular tolerance.
“A typical 15-minute walk in the neighbourhood was taking her an hour to complete. Her resting heart rate was significantly elevated and it didn't take much activity to cause shortness of breath,” Ellen says.
This is a common struggle among COVID-19 long-haulers.
Because of Ashley’s cardiovascular limitations, Ellen had to find a safe way to challenge her strength, balance, coordination, sensation, and muscular endurance without elevating her heart rate.
“The Reformer was the perfect solution because I could keep her supine which allowed her to challenge herself safely. As the weeks went on, we added in sitting and standing work. The Reformer was really effective for her for a few reasons:
- Ashley had great muscle memory from being so active previously.
- She was incredibly dedicated to doing independent work at home to supplement what we did at the clinic.
- The Reformer lends itself to efficient treatment of strength, balance, sensation, and coordination through eccentric, full-range exercises that allow for unilateral work.”
The positive impact of the Reformer on this COVID-19 patient
Since working on the Reformer, Ashley has seen significant improvement in her stamina and overall conditioning. At the conclusion of her treatment, her strength was nearly completely restored on her left side, as was her coordination and balance.
The Reformer gave Ashley the opportunity to get reacquainted with movement again after a very long period of inactivity. Following a very difficult hospitalization, being able to exercise again had a positive impact on Ashley’s mental health and wellbeing.
“I got to focus on moving my body and doing something totally different than being sick. If I hadn’t worked with Ellen and used the Reformer, I wouldn’t have made as many gains as I have in terms of my recovery. I can see the path forward now,” she says.
“When you are critically ill, you just want to get it over with, forget it and move on, but I would highly recommend rehabilitation.”
Her advice to other COVID-19 patients is to “access the resources that you can and advocate for the ones you need.”
“It’s really hard to navigate recovery on your own. You need these supports, so take them if you can get them. I never would have known about the Reformer, or thought about speech therapy, and my ‘return to normal’ would have taken that much longer.”
According to the Harvard Health Blog, 50% to 80% of COVID-19 patients continue to suffer from “bothersome symptoms” up to three months after the onset of the virus, including fatigue, body aches, shortness of breath, difficulty concentrating, inability to exercise, headache, etc. Much is still unknown about the long-term effects of the virus on patient health, recovery and wellbeing.
While not all COVID-19 patients will present or have the same post-virus symptoms as Ashley, Ellen believes that the Reformer was significant in Ashley’s recovery, helping her get physically back to baseline sooner and supporting her mental wellbeing after hospitalization.