COVID-19 long haulers find help in virtual ‘bootcamp’

A year into the pandemic, some people with the earliest cases of COVID-19 are still dealing with symptoms. Commonly referred to as "COVID long haulers", it’s been a scramble the past year to learn how the virus affects them months after infection. 

Some of these long haulers are finding answers in a virtual community led by an eccentric physical therapist. To date, New-York based cardiopulmonary physical therapist Dr. Noah Greenspan says he’s helped hundreds of patients. 

Greg Yourechuk in Seattle is one who sought initial advice from the Pulmonary Wellness Foundation. He first suspected he had the novel coronavirus in March, when he lost his taste and smell. He called his doctor, who ordered him to get a test. 

Related: COVID-19 'long-hauler' and Tacoma nurse's decision on vaccine

"Sure enough, I came positive," Yourechuk said. "At that point in time, you know everything you heard was 14 days, and I just assumed in 14 days, I'm going to be back to normal."

But it’s now been 10 months. Not only is his taste and smell still altered, but Yourechuk said he gets headaches and brain fog. 

"It’s kind of that back end of a flu that you just can’t shake," he said. "It just never, never really has gotten to the point where I wake up one day and I feel great. You lay in bed and you go, geez I hope I feel okay today."  

Despite the challenges, Yourechuk still considers himself one of the lucky ones. He has good breathing capacity and still has his job. He knows other long haulers have much more difficult symptoms than his. But through an online community, he found a lifeline that made him feel less alone when he was feeling less himself.

A colorful cardiopulmonary physical therapist, Dr. Noah Greenspan’s New York practice switched gears after the COVID crisis began. He had founded the Pulmonary Wellness Foundation years prior to help rehabilitate people with cardiopulmonary issues. As COVID long haulers surfaced, he realized he was uniquely qualified to help them through the challenges. 

Related: Transporting country’s first COVID patient one year ago, ‘we had no idea what we were about to walk through’

"Even though this program was designed for people who were mostly elderly, with heart disease, lung disease, multiple medical conditions, in many cases, it was even too vigorous for COVID patients so we had to adapt it, and we now have a COVID online bootcamp as well," Greenspan said. 

From virtual talks to breathing practices to the aforementioned bootcamps, the free content Greenspan provides through his foundation is a guiding light for hundreds of long haulers. 

"It was nice to hear that there was a medical professional out there that believed that this was a real," Yourechuk said. 

Yourechuk said he virtually attended some live talks and learned the importance of breathing. 

"Just learning a couple of those little things can make a big difference," he said.

Greenspan, with tattoos, costumes, and bright, colorful graphics, may have what some consider to be an unconventional approach. But there’s purpose a behind it. 

"So often when people get sick, they become these kind of black and white monochromatic versions of their former selves that are completely devoid of any type of art, music, fashion, style, etc.," Greenspan said. "Their lives become about, go to the doctor, get a prescription, pick up the prescription, take the prescription, eat dinner, go to bed, do it again tomorrow. And that’s not living.

"A lot of people who are these long haulers, they’re saying, yeah, I survive, but this is not living. And so we try to energize life into every single aspect of what we do."

Yourechuk, for his part, hoped sharing his experience with lingering symptoms and seeking online resources can help others facing steeper hills. 

"I can manage," he said. "I’m not suffering. So hopefully that the people that are really suffering can get some help and get through this because this is a huge issue."