For Manalapan resident John Kwiecinski, the journey back to health after COVID-19 has been long, with many bumps and detours. But with help from his wife Roxanne, his medical team, CentraState’s Post-COVID Syndrome Treatment Program, and the “band of brothers” he’s met along the way, John is determined to get stronger.
John was a healthy 50-year-old when he contracted COVID-19 in March 2020. However, he had a major reaction to the virus, spending 361 days in six healthcare facilities, with 67 of those days on mechanical ventilation. John’s fight included many serious complications, including strokes, cardiac arrests, a collapsed lung, kidney failure, multiple significant throat surgeries, and a colostomy. During that time, he lost nearly half of his body weight, going from 250 pounds to just 129 pounds.
“John was struck down by this virus like nothing I’ve ever seen,” explains Todd Cooperman, MD (pictured with John above), medical director of CentraState’s Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation and its Post-COVID Syndrome Treatment Program. “He suffered many rare complications.”
Recovery Takes Time, Tenacity, and Teamwork
When John was discharged in March 2021, he was emaciated and weak. He could only eat through a feeding tube and couldn’t get out of a chair without assistance. “I was happy to be home even though I was weak and distraught,” says John. “I came home using an electric wheelchair, but I was determined to walk again.”
Dr. Cooperman reached out to several specialists to ensure John received coordinated care and was able to begin physical and occupational therapy to help regain the use of his muscles.
The Complexities of Post-COVID Syndrome
While John had recovered from the virus, the lingering effects of COVID-19 continued. Also called long-haul COVID, post-COVID syndrome can cause a host of medical and mental health issues long after patients are virus-free.
“Often, patients say they feel like their complaints are not being taken seriously,” Dr. Cooperman explains. “But long COVID is a complex syndrome that often requires an interdisciplinary, multifaceted approach in a supportive environment.”
John turned to CentraState’s Post-COVID Syndrome Treatment Program for help. The program, overseen by Dr. Cooperman, provides long-haul COVID sufferers with individualized treatment plans. With specialized training in post-COVID rehabilitation techniques, therapists help patients pace themselves and manage their limited energy more efficiently. Program components include diagnostic testing, cardiopulmonary exercise, and physical, occupational, speech, and respiratory therapy. Mental exercises help patients regain cognitive skills, while smell-training therapies help those suffering from loss of taste or smell. The team monitors progress and recalibrates each patient’s care plan to match their changing abilities and goals.
A Band of Brothers
To provide another support system, Brian Mason, PT, DPT, CentraState’s clinical director of rehabilitation, introduced John to long-haulers Steve Barlotta, a musician, and Bill Squires, a sports consultant.
“It’s been a long road for John,” Brian says. “Meeting fellow travelers on that road let him know that there was an end to it.”
“We’ve talked for hours about our experience,” John explains. “It’s great to connect with people who went through the same thing. We’re like brothers now.”
With a team of supporters behind him, John is continuing to persevere.
“I’ve been through hell, but I’m going to keep moving,” says John. “It’s a slow process, but I will not be defeated.”
Catching up with screaming’ Steve Barlotta
Steve Barlotta also had many complications from COVID-19, as featured previously in Healthy Directions. After participating in CentraState’s Post-COVID Syndrome Treatment Program, the saxophonist is happy to report that he’s back on stage with his band, the Sensational Soul Cruisers.
During rehab, Steve worked with resistance bands and medicine balls to improve his strength and balance and completed brain challenges to sharpen his memory. He still performs exercises at home to maintain progress.
“The program was a blessing,” says Steve, who performed a show at CentraState in September to thank his care team. “I wouldn’t have gotten better without it.”
While Steve still experiences brain fog and fatigue, his family and friends, like fellow long-haulers John Kwiecinski and Bill Squires, give him strength on rough days.
“Long-haul COVID is real, and like other types of trauma, it takes time to overcome,” he says. “I’m at about 80 percent now, and I’m going to keep fighting to get to 100 percent.”