WALLINGFORD — Coming home from a month of hospitalization for coronavirus treatment in late April, Vic Gara was determined to get back to work but lacked stamina and sometimes was unable to remember his computer passwords.
The first coronavirus patient to be discharged from Gaylord Specialty Healthcare on April 24, he’s become an evangelist for the hospital’s outpatient recovery program. The program aims to go beyond addressing the respiratory issues many COVID patients struggle with during recovery and also assist with the neurological, cognitive and physical complications.
After being admitted to Hartford Hospital on March 25, Gara was unconscious for two weeks and was on a ventilator for 11 days.
During his outpatient program evaluation, Gara realized how severe is condition was months after being discharged from the hospital.
“I did not expect to hear, after being evaluated, that I was temporarily totally disabled ... and that still is very difficult for me," Gara said.
Though he originally felt he was “on the mend” for the first month after his discharge, his condition worsened over the summer and he entered the recovery program in September, having heard of it through a post-COVID support group he joined through Gaylord. Since then he’s seen “tremendous progress” — able to walk on his own and occasionally drive to Gaylord from his West Granby home.
Gara was admitted to Hartford Hospital on March 25 and transferred to Gaylord on April 15.
"I wouldn't be sitting here right now. Hartford Hospital … saved my life and Gaylord got me back on my feet," he said.
Dr. Jerrold Kaplan, Gaylord’s medical director of outpatient services, said as their patients shared experiences in the hospital's support group for post-discharge COVID patients, it became clear that the complications they faced were wide-ranging, leading to the start of the outpatient program.
"It's a very moving experience when you have a COVID patient who comes in and actually breaks down in tears because Gaylord is the first place that actually listened to them and asked the questions about all of the issues they were facing, not just the respiratory issues,” he said. “Many other providers are so focused on the respiratory issues, ventilatory-dependence issues, that these other cognitive fog issues, balance issues, fatigue issues, really had not been adequately addressed.”
Common residual effects of COVID-19 that are addressed by the program include breathing difficulty, fatigue, muscle weakness, neuropathy, depression, anxiety, short-term memory loss and difficulties in cognitive processing and executive function, according to a description of the program online.
Treatment begins with Kaplan evaluating each patient, asking them what symptoms they’re experiencing and their goals for recovery. Once they enter the program, they work with speech, occupational and physical therapists depending on their symptoms.
"Patients came in with various needs. Some patients had complex needs, so they needed the whole spectrum of Gaylord's services. They might have had neurological issues with numbness, weakness, walking difficulties, balance problems, coordination issues. Other patients were very debilitated from their prolonged ventilator dependence and had respiratory problems,” Kaplan said. “Fatigue is a huge issue in the patient population ... so even after just being up for a few hours they had to take a nap for several hours to be able to just tolerate their activities of daily living.”
The program also sees many patients who never required hospitalization, but who nonetheless have lingering symptoms that disrupt their quality of life. As the program had success with discharged patients returning to work and daily life, word spread and the hospital saw members of the community seeking treatment. Referrals can be done either through a medical professional, calling Gaylord or visiting its website.
Kaplan said they’ve also garnered public interest by validating the ongoing struggles of COVID patients. Patients have told him they believed their sudden memory loss was just part of aging.
"It identified issues that patients were experiencing and validated that this wasn't all in their head, these were real symptoms associated with a very devastating disease," he said.
Gara said he was one of those people questioning if his experiences were all in his head and now regrets just focusing on getting out of the hospital back in April. He urged anyone experiencing changes after having had COVID-19 to consider the recovery program.
"There's no other program like this and anybody's that's suffering any of those symptoms from post-COVID, please reach out to your healthcare professional and mention Gaylord," he said.