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People suffering long-term effects of COVID-19 have a new co-pilot: the Post-COVID ICU Clinic at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora. There, UCHealth specialists in cardiology, pulmonology, physical rehabilitation, and behavioral health come together to see those who struggle with symptoms a month or more after recovering from the coronavirus. “There are patients in their twenties, thirties, and forties who were highly productive and are now unable to walk across the room without feeling exhausted,” says Dr. Natasha Altman, an advanced heart failure and transplant cardiologist. The clinic is the brainchild of Dr. Sarah Jolley, a pulmonary and critical care medicine specialist at the CU School of Medicine who was developing a post-ICU clinic to aid long-term recovery when COVID-19 hit in spring 2020. The project quickly evolved to include pandemic patients with protracted, mostly unexplained issues: Symptoms sometimes resemble those caused by autoimmune disorders or POTS syndrome (a condition that affects blood flow and causes light-headedness and fainting). Thankfully, early studies show that vaccines cut the odds of developing long COVID approximately in half. But for Coloradans with the mysterious ailment, the UCHealth clinic offers a focused, interdisciplinary approach that looks something like this.
A month or more after having COVID-19, you continue to experience mysterious symptoms such as extreme fatigue, shortness of breath, ongoing cough, brain fog or trouble concentrating, loss of taste or smell, and elevated heart rate.
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During your first appointment at the Post-COVID ICU Clinic, you’ll undergo testing tailored to your particular ailments. If you’re having heart-related issues, for example, specialists might check your blood pressure, order an electrocardiogram, and request blood tests or do a stress test to evaluate circulation through your ticker—all while making sure you don’t actually have an unrelated disease.
Depending on your symptoms, Altman and Jolley consult with other doctors from physical and rehabilitative medicine, integrative medicine, and/or behavioral health to develop an often two-pronged, tailored treatment plan that addresses specific physical and mental needs.
- Physical: “For the most part, we try to get people back into activity and exercise slowly,” Altman says. “Recumbent exercise—on a bike or rowing machine or swimming—is generally proving to be helpful.” Other treatments might include inhalers for pulmonary symptoms and physical therapy to build stamina and regain strength.
- Mental: Psychiatrists trained in managing depression, anxiety, insomnia, and cognitive issues—all of which may accompany long COVID—screen patients to identify problems and prescribe medications. The clinic also uses both individual and virtual group therapy to help treat the emotional burdens associated with the virus.
You may need to go into the clinic every few months for as long as a year, but Jolley says the results so far indicate that symptoms will resolve over time: “We’ve embraced this holistic model, and we realize the importance of [supporting] mental health and physical health for long-haulers. Overall, I’m hopeful.”