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Care for the long haul: A patient’s post-COVID-19 symptoms and the network of health professionals learning to help

When Catherine McNeil cut her March 2020 vacation short, it was the start of a long struggle with lingering symptoms after a COVID-19 infection. Now, a B.C. network of health professionals is growing and learning to support more patients like Catherine.
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Catherine McNeil was getting worried calls from her spouse in Vancouver, while she was on vacation in Egypt in March 2020. 

While anxiously watching the news, she shortened her trip, and booked an earlier flight back for March 17 – coincidentally the same day the federal government called for Canadians abroad to return home.

Her spouse stocked their Vancouver condo with food before her arrival, and then left to stay elsewhere. Catherine went straight from the airport to the condo, but started coughing on the drive. “I remember having a sinking feeling, and worrying for the taxi driver," said Catherine. “I had my mask on and sat as far away as possible."​

Once alone in the apartment, Catherine began to feel much worse. 

“I got every symptom on the list! I managed to get in a car and drive to a testing centre," said Catherine. “I wasn't surprised to see positive test result – I had COVID-19."

Catherine spent three weeks alone in the apartment, with help from 811 nurses to determine when she was no longer contagious. But even after the COVID-19 infection had passed, Catherine wasn't feeling back to herself.

A retired chief financial officer, Catherine usually enjoyed an active, busy lifestyle and kept up contract bookkeeping work.

But after her COVID-19 infection, she felt breathless and fatigued from normal activities and her hair was falling out. “I couldn't walk up a flight of stairs. I was so worried that would be a permanent state – constantly feeling decades older than I am."

Catherine was infected early in the pandemic, and experienced post-COVID-19 symptoms before they were widely known. “My GP was so supportive, but also completely honest that we don't understand what's going on post-COVID," Catherine explained.

“The hardest part is when you go in for medical help, you have no idea how long the symptoms will last. After struggling for months, it's terrifying to think symptoms might last forever," said Catherine.

During her post-COVID-19 journey, Catherine was referred to a Post-COVID-19 Recovery Clinic. There, she learned about symptom self-management, and CT scans showed that despite congestion in Catherine's lungs, there's been no permanent scarring.

Catherine's post-COVID-19 symptoms subsided after about four months, and now she feels she's made a full recovery. But, she recognizes every patient has a different journey – while many people's post-COVID-19 symptoms improve after six to nine months, some continue to experience symptoms.

To help other patients, Catherine signed on as a patient partner with the Post-COVID-19 Interdisciplinary Clinical Care Network (PC-ICCN), to lend a patient perspective to help inform their work and growth. ​​

B.C. launches a virtual lear​ning community for health-care providers

Building from PC-ICCN, B.C. has now launched a monthly learning series for health professionals, called the ECHO for Post-COVID-19 Recovery. ​

“Our goal for this free virtual learning community is to give health-care providers the help and support needed to care for patients experiencing symptoms after COVID-19 infection," said Michelle Malbeuf, Clinical Operations Lead with the PC-ICCN.

Based on the global ECHO model for clinical learning, B.C. specialists and community health-care providers come together each month for interactive one-hour discussions to learn about post-COVID-19 care.

“The power of the ECHO model is that it allows for the transfer of specialist knowledge to any health care provider in the province, so B.C. can be on the leading edge of post-COVID care," Michelle said.

Over 70 health professionals from around the province joined the first ECHO session on July 13,   Post-COVID-19: What the family practitioner needs to know.

Health professionals can watch previous session recordings, and register now for the next live interactive session on Aug. 10, 12-1 p.m., An Overview of Long-Haulers.

Learn more about post-COVID-19 care and recovery

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