In two early studies, researchers said some patients showed signs of healing just weeks after leaving the hospital.
When Annie Coissieux tried to stand up for the first time after weeks in the hospital battling Covid-19, she couldn’t get on her feet.
“My first day after I.C.U., I couldn’t leave the chair without the help of two nurses,” she recalled from her home in the Drôme region in southeast France. She felt breathless and exhausted after walking for just a few minutes. “Going to the bathroom was a real mission that required time and effort.”
Ms. Coissieux, 78, was sent to a nearby pulmonary rehabilitation clinic, Dieulefit Santé, where a physical therapist taught her breathing exercises to help restore her lungs and the muscles involved in breathing.
When she went home three weeks later, Ms. Coissieux could walk close to 1,000 feet, albeit with a walker. As she continued exercising at home, she grew stronger.
“Now I can walk 500 meters with no walker,” or about 1,600 feet, said the retired schoolteacher. “I can walk up the stairs at my cousin’s house.” And while she still feels fatigued in the afternoons, she cycles on her indoor bike and swims.
Lingering shortness of breath and diminished stamina have dogged many Covid patients whose lungs were viciously attacked by the coronavirus. Early in the pandemic, doctors worried that Covid might cause irreversible damage leading to lung fibrosis — progressive scarring in which lung tissue continues to die even after the infection is gone.
At a recent European Respiratory Society meeting, doctors presented early results of a few small studies that offered a glimmer of hope, indicating that in at least some cases, patients’ lungs show signs of recovery especially with intensive aftercare and exercise.
For patients who were bedridden or intubated in intensive care units for weeks, the ability to breathe on their own was impaired. Their muscles, including the diaphragm — the main breathing muscle that pushes the abdominal organs down so that the lungs can expand — had weakened.
“They spent months in bed and lost their muscle and respiratory capacity,” Ms. Al Chikhanie explained.
“It seems that most of these more severe patients recover from severe lung injury,” said Dr. Frederic Hérengt, who oversaw the study at Dieulefit Santé.
Longer range studies still have to be conducted to assess the potential for permanent effects.
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