Lewistown Woman: Benefis Post-COVID-19 Program ‘Gave Me Hope I Could Get Through This’

If you are suffering from long COVID, please visit Benefis.org/PostCOVID for more information about the recovery program.

LEWISTOWN – The harder Jo fought to regain her strength after COVID-19, the more ground she lost. 

“It’s supposed to be that you exercise and you get stronger,” she said. “I had to be extra careful as if I pushed, I would get worse. As the infection got further behind me, I was further from recovery. I was going backward.”

Jo worked in the National Park Service, including 21 years in Yellowstone National Park, and in retirement began leading activities in a Vermont assisted living home.

“When the pandemic started, it was difficult for all of us but especially the residents because they could no longer see their family or friends,” she said. “Even knowing what happened, I feel very grateful to have been able to stay at the center and do my best to bring a bright, happy outlook and some cheer to them.”

Just before the vaccine’s arrival, COVID swept through the facility. Jo’s acute infection “wasn’t a piece of cake,” but Jo never needed hospitalization and never infected her husband. She lost her sense of smell in a moment, and green peppers suddenly tasted terrible (but she ate them anyway, out of stubbornness). 

After two weeks, Jo, then 59, was out of quarantine but unable to return to work because of severe fatigue.

By the fourth week, she could only manage a few hours a day of work.

“I really struggled,” she said. “COVID turned everything on its head.”

long covid recovery clinic

She’d been healthy, active, and upbeat before COVID, but Jo found herself confined by her shortness of breath, especially in the humidity of summer. She had to pause for breath up to three times walking up a flight of stairs. This wasn’t panting from exercise. She felt like she was suffocating. She felt her attitude sour.

The outbreak was in December. In the summer, with her breathing problems and brain fog, Jo quit her job.

“To be an active person and suddenly you can’t get up the stairs because you can’t get enough breath is so hard,” she said. “I just could never catch my breath. It just wasn’t there.”

Jo read all she could find about long COVID and found a story about the Benefis Post-COVID-19 Recovery Program, which brings together a wide range of specialties such as primary care, pulmonary, cardiology, ear, nose, and throat, neurology, infectious disease, gastroenterology, physical and occupational therapy, speech language pathology, mental health, and pharmacy to treat the complex, new condition of long COVID. 

“It gave me hope I could get through this,” she said. “I knew I wanted to be here on this earth some more, that I wanted to be with my family and friends. I would remind myself I was healthy and strong before, and that I was loved and supported and prayed for.”

In the fall, she and her husband headed west to Montana to join their son in Lewistown. She reached out to the Benefis program and “cried with relief” after her first visit with respiratory therapist Kim Williams.

“It meant the world to me to have medical experts become a team with me,” she said. “They believed me even before the tests, and they were ready to work with me.”

A few weeks later, she had her first appointment with Dr. Brad Nieset by phone for an hourlong assessment.

“He was so understanding and reassuring,” she said. “I felt hope after months of struggling to breathe.” 

Dr. Nieset started Jo on a nebulizer treatment and another medication. She focused her thoughts on images of healthy lungs and envisioned airways opening. 

She recently woke for the first time in a year and a half with no tightness in her chest, no pain, and no sense of her lungs closing.

“I just reveled in that,” she said. “I would get these little snippets of what’s to come in recovery.”

She celebrated, too, when walking started opening her lungs instead of straining them. That meant she could start walking farther and faster.

“Dr. Nieset and Kim are voices of hope,” she said. “I am so grateful to them, along with all the specialists and the entire program staff. Across the miles and through the seasons, they have given me a way forward on this long journey and the precious ability to breathe again.” 

Jo now can walk three miles, and her goal is five and eventually getting back into hiking. She doesn’t have to depend on her husband for everything but can contribute to her family as she wants. She only needs oxygen at night. 

“I got my life back,” she said through her tears. “I will never take breathing for granted again.”