A groundbreaking rehab program at The Ottawa Hospital is offering hope to people suffering from "long COVID."
According to the World Health Organization, at least 10 per cent of people who contract COVID-19 will continue to experience symptoms months later.
It's estimated that about four million Canadians have been infected, which means some 400,000 may have long COVID.
Many sufferers report intense fatigue, trouble catching their breath, brain fog, anxiety and depression.
Mental health support
The new post-COVID rehab program at The Ottawa Hospital combines physiotherapy and occupational therapy, but also includes an important core of mental health supports.
"This patient population has a huge sense of loss from their prior lives. 'I don't have my former self, I want to be out hiking, I want to be doing these things,'" said Wendy Laframboise, a nurse practitioner and co-ordinator of the program.
Patients work with an occupational therapist to focus on their daily activities, set goals and manage their energy output.
Laframboise said she frequently hears from sufferers who are stricken with guilt over what feels like an overly long recovery.
"I spoke with an individual yesterday who felt that she was a bad mom because she couldn't do a craft with her toddler," she said.
Dr. Shawn Marshall, who leads the hospital's physical medicine and rehabilitation division, called that "mental component" a complicating secondary aspect of the illness.
"There will be disappointment and loss and frustration, and this further compounds your ability to function," he said. "That will [affect] your emotions because you can't fulfil your roles."
Virtual group sessions
Another key component of the therapy is virtual group sessions with other long COVID patients.
About 40 patients have been through the program, including Monique Stone, 51, who contracted COVID-19 in January 2021, and still struggles with chronic fatigue.
"When you push, long COVID will push you back and just push you onto the couch and say, you'll stay there for about a day," said Stone.
Laframboise said an added challenge for long COVID sufferers is that sometimes the patient's family or doctor isn't convinced they're still sick.
"So many of their symptoms are on the inside. They don't have a cast [or] a broken leg," she said.
Stone credits the rehab program with teaching her to pace herself, and to redefine her new normal.
"It's not, 'I recover from COVID or I die from COVID.' There's this whole big thing in between," she said.
There is currently a waiting list of more than 50 patients hoping to join the program.
Stone said she's thankful for what the program has given her.
"There's no pill I can take. It's, how do I adjust and live the best life I can within these new constraints and new limitations?"