I am fractious and grumpy when I first go to pulmonary rehabilitation at my local hospital.
This is because I have local hospital PTSD because of past treatment. However, there is only one hospital in my county.
I am anxious and tachycardic when I first arrive. I have sent patients to cardiac rehabilitation and to pulmonary rehabilitation, but it’s the first time I’ve gone. My doctor did not refer me until I ask her. I thought it up while I was talking to my insurance company’s chronic care person. You know you are desperate when you call your insurance company for ideas. The insurance company is motivated to pay for pulmonary rehabilitation because I am expensive. I have had loads of tests this year and cost a bunch of money. They would like me well. Me too. So yes, I qualify for pulmonary rehab by virtue of four pneumonias in nineteen years and this time a year on oxygen continuously and still part time now.
I have two people to help me. One is a respiratory therapist and the other a physical therapist. I am an unusual referral. Many of their patients have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and/or emphysema, usually from cigaretes, but also from things like asbestos or alpha-1-antitrypsin disorder or progressive muscular disorders.
They explain. There are 24 visits, over 12 weeks. I come in twice a week. I am weighed, they ask about symptoms, and we go to the small gym. It has three treadmills, three stationary bikes and three of those semi-horizontal not really a bike things. I pick the treadmill. After I describe my lung weirdness, that a fast heart rate preceeds hypoxia, they put a wrist pulse oximeter on me. Unlike the little finger ones, it can pick up heart rate and oxygen rate even when I am walking on the treadmill. My blood pressure and pulse is checked and I start the treadmill. I go slowly the first time. My heartrate is over 100 to start with, but that’s partly the PTSD reaction. I can slow my heart rate just by slowing my breathing and not talking, into the 80s.
Here is how I looked the first time:
Ok, not really. I start walking on the treadmill and go for 30 minutes. Blood pressure and heart rate are checked mid way through. The only time I drop my oxygen level is when I walk AND talk and then I drop it to 87. I stop talking.
After the treadmill, there is another 15-20 minutes of “patient education” about the lungs. This is usually a video, discussion and handouts. They can have up to 3 people simultaneously. At first there is another woman, but she finishes her 12 weeks. She is still on oxygen. I am doing the treadmill without oxygen. “What is your goal?” asks the respiratory therapist. “I want to ski this winter.” I say. She blinks.
The patient education alternates with lifting hand weights. The physical therapist does that with me. There is a stretching session each time too. The weights are slow twitch muscles so that is easier for me to push.
On the third day on the treadmill, I start pushing myself. My heart rate before starting was 81. I get to 120. “Um, don’t push it further than that.” says the therapist.
“Why not?” I say.
“Well, the guidelines are that we’re supposed to not have the person exercising at a heart rate of more than 30 over their baseline.”
“Oh,” I say. I am at 40 over. I slow down a little, aiming for a heart rate of 115. My blood pressure is between 90 and 115 systolic to start with, even anxious, and goes up to the 140s or 150s in the middle of exercising. If I talk too much while I am on the treadmill, my oxygen level starts to drop. It drops the third time down below 88 and the therapist says, “Shall I get oxygen?” “No,” I say. “I just need to shut up.” I do and my oxygen level recovers.
I steadily improve on the treadmill. I can enter my weight and it will measure “METS”. I start out at only a few mets. My goal is as high as I can go. By week 8 I am pleased to be alternating walking and running and I am averaging over 8 mets. Bicycling takes 7-9 mets, and more if you race. I want to return to bicycling.
Then I get my flu vaccine. I feel terrible the next day and cancel my rehab. I see my doctor for a routine visit the next Tuesday and she gives me the covid booster. That hammers me. I go back to being tachycardic much more easily and my fast twitch muscles are not working again. I contact my cardiologist and primary, do I put pulmonary rehabilitation on hold?
I decide to go and I do not drop my oxygen. However, I get tachycardic much more quickly, I can’t get up to over 8 mets, and it feels truly terrible. And my muscles give me hell and hurt horribly for the next two days. I put pulmonary rehab on hold and wait and do slow twitch exercises. The working theory is that there are antibodies to my fast twitch muscles, so the vaccines have activated my immune system. Not just antibodies to influenza and covid, but also the ones that make my muscles not work and hurt. A fibromyalgia/chronic fatigue flare. I start sleeping 12 hours a day again, as I did when I got sick over a year ago. I am really anxious at first but there are no signs of pneumonia, I am not hypoxic, and it’s mostly muscles and fatigue.
After three weeks I return and do my last four pulmonary rehab visits. It hurts way more than the first 8 weeks and it is way more exhausting. I don’t like sleeping 12 hours a night. It could be worse, though. Some people have chronic fatigue where they have to lie in bed most of the time. I don’t have that, so I consider myself lucky. Mine is fast twitch muscles only. Presumably theirs is fast and slow twitch muscles. I have an annoying but relatively mild version of chronic fatigue.
I graduate from pulmonary rehabilitation. Many thanks for the help with my muscles! I want a wrist pulse oximeter, but they cost $700 and I dont’ really need it. By now I can tell when I have a fast heart rate and I can tell when I am getting hypoxic. It makes me goofy and silly, though I normally have that anyhow.
Many thanks to Jefferson Healthcare’s Pulmonary Rehabilitation Department. And if you have had pneumonia more than once or long Covid, consider asking your doctor to refer you. It makes me much more confident about exercising and pushing myself and what is safe. And eventually these stupid antibodies will fall off the receptors again. I hope.
For the Ragtag Daily Prompt: fractious.
PS: The Rehabilitation Department was closed then open then closed then open during the last two years. They did not have many people when I was there. Get in soon, because there are limited spaces!