Many hospitalized COVID survivors living with chronic lung damage
OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT) - Emergency personnel like Bennington Fire and Rescue volunteer E.M.T. Roger Crom were on the front line from the beginning of the COVID-19 fight. It was around the first of March 2020 when he became infected with the virus after back-to-back rescue calls. He didn’t know they would be the last calls of his career.
“I spent five weeks in the hospital, almost three weeks in intensive care,” Crom said. “My wife dropped me off at the front door of the E.R. because she was positive (for COVID-19.) I didn’t see her for 30 days.”
One of Roger’s doctors, John Dickinson, MD, PhD, said the one to two years of data he has seen shows 10 to 30% of hospitalized COVID-19 survivors like him have persistent lung damage such as intense scarring and collapsed tissue, chronic damage like he hasn’t seen with other viruses.
“These people had profound lung injury, the worst I saw in my career,” said Dickinson, associate professor and physician-scientist at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. “The recovery is very slow. What’s different about COVID-19 is just the scale, the millions and millions of people that had COVID-19 and then the hundreds of thousands that are I.C.U. survivors, and these are the population that we’re watching very carefully to make sure that they do recover. or if they don’t, what can we offer them in a way of treatment?”
In Roger’s case, pulmonary rehab is teaching him his limits. Dickinson said in addition to their own programs, they frequently refer patients to hospitals that specialize in complex recoveries, such as Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital.
An E.M.T. since 1972 and a paramedic since 1981, the future now looks completely different than what Roger and his wife imagined. Gone are the dreams of making two scuba diving trips a year, or traveling to high altitude locations.
“I’m lucky,” he said. “I know people that are truly incapacitated. I am restrained, of course. I am limited in certain things. the biggest thing that kills me are stairs, by far, which is why I can’t do rescue calls anymore. I can’t carry equipment up a flight of stairs. Puttering around, playing with the grandkids, i’m okay.”
“But no scuba diving. That was my retirement plan,” he said. “I was going to retire and scuba dive somewhere good twice a year. I got lucky. I got to go to Hawaii. I got to go to Florida. I got to go to the Bahamas scuba diving in the time I did it. But I was going to do a lot more.”
Dickinson said that what they learned during COVID clinics at UNMC and Nebraska Medicine during the height of the pandemic has been included in larger research programs such as Recover, which has a broader focus on many long-term COVID health issues. Once again, Nebraska will be leading the COVID fight.
“(Recover) is a very broad study to sort of capture data from anyone who’s had COVID, so from the brain fog, the long-COVID symptoms, pulmonary fibrosis symptoms, functional disability,” Dickinson said. “So we’ve enrolled patients here to look at this comprehensive study to examine. This is going to be up to 18,000 people across the country, and it’s meant to be the definitive sort of post-COVID or long-COVID study in the country.”
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