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Life After COVID: One Survivor’s Journey

Published on Jul. 15, 2021

One Survivor’s Journey from the COVID-19 Unit to Overcoming the Illness’s Long-term Symptoms

On the evening of March 25, 2020, Doug Galer was returning from a rescue call when he suddenly didn't feel so well.

"I had the chills, a very slight fever, and a bad headache," says the now 60-year-old Otsego County EMT Rescue Tech. "It just wasn’t right – I knew something was wrong."

That something wrong was COVID-19.

Doug immediately headed home, where he wrestled with his symptoms for ten long days, telling himself he would eventually get better. But Doug felt worse with each passing day. On April 6, 2020, he reached his breaking point: gasping for breath, Doug called the ambulance – the same team he would normally be working alongside to help save others.  "A fellow paramedic said he had never seen anyone as gray as I was. Even then, I just still didn't think I was that bad."

The Long Road to Recovery

Doug was rushed to Munson Healthcare Otsego Memorial Hospital, where he was diagnosed with COVID-19, intubated, and immediately transferred to the COVID unit at Munson Healthcare Grayling Hospital. His memory of the experience ends there. Over the next ten days, Doug developed COVID-induced pneumonia before his kidneys began shutting down. He was immediately transferred to Munson Medical Center's COVID unit, where he required dialysis to take over for his failing kidneys, along with a feeding tube delivering nourishment to his struggling body for three weeks.

A week later, Doug became the first person in northern Michigan to receive convalescent plasma treatment for his illness. Suddenly, within a few weeks, he opened his eyes for the first time in over a month.

"It was kind of surreal, not really knowing what had happened," he recalls. "I knew where I was, but it was just kind of strange. People were talking, and I was thinking it was still the middle of April. I didn't realize a month had passed. I even asked my wife what we were doing for Easter."

It’s Not Over Yet: Navigating Post-COVID Symptoms

Doug’s condition improved, and he was moved from the COVID Unit to ICU, followed by a month of inpatient rehabilitation, where he started physical and occupational therapy to recover the strength, balance, and range of motion he'd lost. When he finally returned home in late June, Doug never imagined that the impact of COVID would continue to disrupt his life – especially when it came to moving around.

After struggling for six months with what he felt was muscle weakness, he decided to start a pulmonary rehabilitation program at Otsego Memorial Hospital on the recommendation of his friend, Denise Schmidlin, Supervisor of the Cardiac/ Pulmonary Rehabilitation Department at Munson Healthcare Otsego Memorial Hospital.

After speaking with his primary care physician, Doug was referred to a 12-week, 36-session exercise and education program designed to control breathing difficulties, improve lung capacity, and improve one’s ability to participate comfortably in movement and exercise.

“Patients recovering from COVID frequently have lingering symptoms that may last for months to years depending on the severity. This increases if they were hospitalized to treat the illness,” explains Schmidlin. “Doug’s symptoms – difficulty breathing, fatigue, and decreased exercise tolerance – fell in right in line with what many COVID survivors have experienced following their recovery. Symptoms that pulmonary rehabilitation can help address. We’re unable to repair the damage done by the COVID-19 virus or any other pulmonary disease, but we can improve overall quality of life, increase exercise endurance, and improve overall mental and emotional status.”

For Doug, pulmonary rehab meant coming to grips with the root of his COVID-induced limitations.

"Before this therapy, I was really blaming my shortness of breath on muscle weakness. The program has helped me to realize it's about my breath. I am able to better recognize better when I need to just take a break, catch my breath, and relax a bit," he says.

Though it wasn’t always easy, Doug saw a significant improvement, says Schmidlin.

“The biggest thing he came out of rehab with was realizing his limits and how far he can push himself,” she says. “We’ve taught him techniques to help control his breathing and improve his ability to oxygenate his lungs. In turn, he’s learned to accept and cope with where he is now as compared to pre-COVID.”

The Road Ahead

Today, Doug still has limited range of motion in his left shoulder. He also suffers from scarring in his throat brought on in part by the endotracheal tube that helped him breathe while in the hospital. Having survived vocal cord cancer a few years prior, the tube irritated his already inflamed vocal cords. Still, Doug is no longer gasping for air. He enjoys taking walks, which the rehab has helped tremendously.

“Anybody – even if they're asymptomatic with COVID – should do a pulmonary rehab program. It really defined things for me in terms of my health issues,” Doug shares. "In retrospect, it probably would’ve helped me more if I would've started the program sooner. I probably gained at least 50% improvement. The therapy has taught me how to control it."

Doug still participates in pulmonary rehab as much as twice per week, exercising mostly on the treadmill, recumbent elliptical trainer, and bike.

“They're the best. They work so well with you and explain everything to you. They do an excellent job and they're very proactive,” he says. “They know that you can't just sit back. You've got to work at it. They're big proponents that this should be the standard of care if you've had any type of COVID illness. I hope my own story will help encourage others with long-term covid.”

More than a year following his hospitalization, Doug is more than happy to share his story COVID survival story. He hopes people will learn from his mistakes, and see immediate medical help when they know something is wrong.    

“Don't hesitate. Trust the medical experts and the science. You know when your body is not right. I hesitated, and it almost ended for me,” he says.

Doug also encourages his fellow community members to get vaccinated.

“I tell people I understand your skepticism, but you've got to go with the science involved in this. The safest thing you can do is get it as soon as you can.”

Did You Have COVID-19?

If you had COVID-19, pulmonary rehabilitation can help improve your long-term symptoms. Talk to your family doctor about improving your own post-COVID recovery, including a referral for pulmonary rehabilitation at Munson Healthcare.

How Pulmonary Rehabilitation Works

Questions? Ask a Nurse!

Struggling with symptoms, but you’re not quite sure what to do next? Get expert advice from a registered nurse at no charge. Just call 231-935-0951 any time. No insurance is required.

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