Samantha Stevenson-Stowell had just received her second COVID vaccine in late January. The physician assistant was feeling off but was sure she was only getting a cold. Within days the active 37-year-old cyclist, runner and mother of twin 6-year-olds was in Providence St. Vincent Medical Center with oxygen levels dipping into the 80s and diagnosed with COVID.
“I couldn’t breathe,” said Stevenson-Stowell.
After a week of hospitalization and treatments with supplemental oxygen, steroids, antivirals, and anti-coagulants, she was discharged home. She needed supplemental oxygen for another two months at home where she battled two bouts of pneumonia, a kidney infection and sustained arrythmia. In addition, she struggled with fatigue so intense she could hardly keep her eyes open.
In late spring she began experiencing weakness on her right side and inflammation in her heart. A month ago, she began losing her hair, and a scalp biopsy found COVID marker cells.
“It is all so frustrating,” said Stevenson-Stowell. “I was at 40 percent of my old self – on a good day.”
With the help of her doctor, she found a supportive team at Providence’s newly opened COVID Recovery Clinic.
Carmen Kendall, M.D., a Providence family practice physician since 2005, began noticing a demand for care of COVID patients who were experiencing sustained health challenges long past when they should have recovered. Dr. Kendall advocated for the COVID Recovery Clinic and now serves as the intake physician.
When a patient reaches out to the clinic, Dr. Kendall goes through their chart, reviewing every assessment, test and specialist visit the patient has done to date. The most common health concerns are fatigue, brain fog, shortness of breath, rapid heartbeat, and nerve issues.
“The goal is to learn as much as possible about each patient’s particular situation so we can create an individualized plan of care for recovery,” said Dr. Kendall.
Before opening the clinic, Dr. Kendall and colleagues researched long haul COVID clinics around the country. Based on that review, Providence developed a multidisciplinary approach encompassing physical, speech and occupational therapies, behavioral health, medical nutrition, clinical pharmacy, and involving specialties such as neurology, cardiology, pulmonology, and neuropsychiatry as needed. A key element of the treatment is supportive, gentle physical therapy. Since numerous body systems have been compromised and are sensitive to over-exertion, the goal of therapy is to improve function without causing further harm or set-back.
“This is about re-setting a baseline for the patient,” said Bob Isler, Providence physical therapy supervisor. “Patients have to embrace energy conservation. They only have so much fuel and a gentle, slow approach will allow them to gradually strengthen their pulmonary and cardiac systems.”
Physical therapists help the patient focus on breathing, relaxation, pacing and energy conservation. They use supine aerobics – aerobics performed while lying down to lessen the strain on the heart – to begin rebuilding strength.
The clinic opened in May and is currently serving nearly 40 patients, ranging in age from 14 to 78. The majority are younger women who were active and healthy before COVID, just like Stevenson-Stowell.
Stevenson-Stowell does feel better and believes the physical therapy is helping. “I’m taking steps toward my recovery, small steps, but steps forward.” she said.
“I am very humbled by this experience, it will make me a better caregiver when I get back into the clinic and begin caring for my patients again.”
The physician assistant also believes getting the COVID vaccine saved her life. She tested positive just as she got her second Moderna vaccine – so she did not have the full benefit of the vaccine, but she did benefit from the first shot.
“I firmly believe if I hadn’t got that first dose, I would not be alive,” she said. “That first vaccination gave my body the tools it needed to fight the virus. That first vaccine saved my life.”
To learn more or seek care at Providence’s COVID Recovery Clinic, call 971-326-8718.
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