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Medical rehab programs help patients heal from long COVID-19 symptoms

For Fay Haataja the post-COVID program at Essentia Health helped her overcome debilitating headaches, brain fog and long-term memory loss after more than a year of symptoms.

woman standing in front of painting
Fay Haataja, of Carlton County, poses with her finger painting, which was a creative exercise that helped her feel like her old self after battling long COVID symptoms for over a year.
Contributed / Fay Haataja
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DULUTH — If you were infected by COVID-19 and experienced symptoms more than a month later, you aren’t alone. In fact, studies show about 10%-30% of people become long haulers — meaning they have new, ongoing or worsening symptoms 30 days or longer after their COVID infection.

Fay Haataja, of Carlton County, Minnesota, knew COVID had made a long-term impact on her when she started experiencing debilitating headaches, difficulty focusing, extreme fatigue and digestive problems. She was infected with COVID in November 2020.

“My life was no different from anybody else’s, and all of a sudden it came to this screeching halt,” Haataja said. “The headache just, like, exploded and I felt my brain shut down completely. I couldn’t think. I couldn’t focus. And then the headache lasted for about a year.”

In the weeks and months following her COVID infection, Haataja struggled to keep up at her job, where she worked in a leadership role at an area church. Decision-making was overwhelming to her, and she found following to-do lists and calendars nearly impossible.

She sought several doctors and specialists, which were difficult to schedule due to appointment backlog in the wake of the pandemic shutdown. She was able to determine what wasn’t wrong with her — including dementia — but she still didn’t have an answer for what was.

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After more than six months of searching for answers, she saw Essentia integrative health specialist Rachel Scharfenberg, who gave her the news that no other practitioners had been able to tell her: She was not the only person experiencing these things.

“And that’s when I started believing that there’s hope,” Haataja said. “So that, I think, was a good point in this whole journey to just recognize that you’re not alone and that you’re not crazy. This is happening.”

According to the Household Pulse Study from the National Center for Health Statistics and the Census Bureau, about 16 million Americans age 18-65 were experiencing long COVID symptoms at the time of their survey this summer. Of those, 2 million-4 million are out of work due to their symptoms. Long COVID seems to affect more women than men, according to the study.

With guidance from Scharfenberg, Haataja began taking supplements and working on relaxation techniques to rest her body and mind. She saw gradual progress, but as time progressed, she realized she was missing many core memories from throughout her life.

“I knew people, but I looked at my husband and I said, ‘I don’t remember our wedding. I don’t remember dating you. I don’t remember giving birth to children. We home-schooled our kids — I don’t remember doing that. I know basic facts, but everything else is messed up,’” Haataja said. “I wasn’t able to recognize that early on because I was just so wrapped up in getting from point A to point B.”

Scharfenberg then referred Haataja to Essentia’s Polinsky Medical Rehabilitation Center in Duluth's Miller Hill Mall. There, she worked with counselor Gerry Ouellette and speech-language therapist Peggy Stone as part of Essentia’s post-COVID-19 rehab program.

Joan Jeanetta, rehabilitation director, said long COVID presents itself in a variety of ways, including fatigue, brain fog (difficulty focusing, concentrating or multitasking); weakness; poor endurance; challenges with daily activities; or challenges coping with illness and symptoms (depression or anxiety).

Even though wastewater surveillance is proving to be the most accurate and economical way to gauge COVID activity in communities across the country, funding for this type of tracking hasn’t been consistent. And data collection is sometimes paused while wastewater researchers look for new ways to pay for the surveillance. Besides COVID, the technique is being used to track the spread of monkeypox.

Essentia’s post-COVID rehab program begins with a patient assessment, where therapists will determine an individualized plan that could include a mix of physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech language pathology and/or rehabilitation psychology. The program began over a year ago and is offered at most Essentia Health locations.

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“When we started seeing these symptoms from long COVID, it was just a natural connection to therapy,” Jeanetta said. “Our volume has increased significantly, and I think partly that’s due to just a heightened awareness in the community.”

St. Luke’s doesn’t have a designated COVID rehab program, but respiratory therapist Kristine Worcester said she’s seen a handful of long COVID patients in the pulmonary rehab program, which is a twice weekly program that meets for 12 weeks to improve shortness of breath and breathing endurance.

“One thing that’s kind of special to the post-long COVID patient is they seem a lot more anxious about getting back to exercising again,” Worcester said. “That fear of being short of breath is holding them back. I find that knowing they’re in a monitored environment where there’s people that can help them, they tend to relax a little bit and gain their confidence in exercising again.”

Other rehabilitative programs are also available at St. Luke’s, depending on the patient’s symptoms of long COVID.

Long COVID rehabilitation is recommended for people whose symptoms are so severe, they struggle to complete daily tasks, including going to work or participating in recreational activities. St. Luke’s requires a referral from a general practitioner, and Essentia can see patients with a referral from a primary care physician or with an appointment with a therapist.

For Haataja, the speech language therapy helped her overcome her neurological symptoms, including her brain fog and memory loss. She was given assignments, which included journaling, reading and recalling details from articles each day, and rediscovering who she was through conversations, photos and home videos. Her rehab lasted about six months, and although she completed sessions at the beginning of summer, Haataja said she still works daily to heal.

“You just had to be willing to get up in the morning and face whatever the day brought,” Haataja said. “Sometimes weird things happen, like we were sitting in church one day and all of a sudden my eyes teared up because I remembered a lady who I used to really like had died. Sometimes it catches you off-guard, so you have to give yourself space to say, ‘I’m healing.’”

One aspect of her life Haataja had been missing since her COVID infection was her artistic creativity. She said her son, to whom she taught pottery, has since retaught her the skill. One day, she wanted to paint, but couldn’t remember where her supplies were. After finding her paints, but no brushes, she began finger painting and created a piece she’s very proud of because it helped her rediscover her passion.

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Haataja stepped down from her job last year because she didn’t feel fit to fill a leadership role while she struggled with her long COVID symptoms, but she has since found a new career path. She hasn’t experienced one of her debilitating headaches in a year.

“I do not know how long the healing journey will take, or if I will ever be back to ‘normal,’ but I am grateful for the many lessons I have learned as the discoveries each new day brings,” Haataja said.

Laura Butterbrodt covers health for the Duluth News Tribune. She has a bachelor of arts in journalism from South Dakota State University and has been working as a reporter in Minnesota and South Dakota since 2014.
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