For patients who win the COVID19 ICU battle, the war is not over

A medical staff places an oxygen mask on Dimitris Katsiboubas, 75, a post COVID-19 patient during his therapy at Theseus rehabilitation center, in Athens, Tuesday, March 9, 2021.

While Dimitris Katsiboubas, a post-COVID19 patient, was exercising, at some point he could not follow the exercise anymore. He had a sad expression for a second until the physical therapists asked him if he got tired. “No… it’s OK…” he said.

Surviving the COVID19 intensive care units, patients intubated for excessive periods of time have to endure the long process of rehabilitation. They turn to physical therapy in order to learn how to breathe, walk, and eat, all over again. 

A year ago, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic. Since then, more than two and a half million people have died worldwide, while still, many give the fight of -and for- their lives in the intensive care units. For those who survive, the struggle is far from over.

A physical therapist treats a sixty-two year old post COVID19 patient, during his therapy at Theseus rehabilitation center, in Athens, Wednesday, March 10, 2021
A physical therapist treats a sixty-two year old post COVID19 patient, during his therapy at Theseus rehabilitation center, in Athens, Wednesday, March 10, 2021

“A patient who will be intubated in a hospital ICU for a long period of time, will surely need rehabilitation,” said therapy supervisor of Theseus Rehabililitation Center, Antonis Doukas.

Exiting the ICU, patients often deal with functionality problems caused both by the disease, and intubation procedures. A lot of the post-COVID19 patients arrive at the Theseus rehabilitation center with tracheostomies or gastrostomies, thus unable to feed or speak. 

Others develop ICU Acquired Weakness, meaning they are too weak to lift a glass of water, sit on their own, or even support their head, Doukas said. 

The longer a patient is intubated, the severity of the long term side effects increases.

Dimitris Katsiboubas, 75, a post COVID19 patient, sits on his wheelchair during his rehabilitation at Theseus rehabilitation center, in Athens, Greece, Tuesday, Mar. 9, 2021.
A physical therapist treats a sixty-two year old post COVID19 patient, during his therapy at Theseus rehabilitation center, in Athens, Wednesday, March 10, 2021

“When I got here, I could not walk. They brought me on a stretcher,” said 74-year-old COVID19 survivor, Dimitris Katsiboubas, who was hospitalized at the Theseus Rehab Center. 

His slender arms reached for the oxygen mask covering his mouth. Katsiboubas has gone a long way. After a month in the ICU and four days intubated, he was finally able to take a few steps on his own and even climb a couple of steps.

Dimitris Katsiboubas, 75, a post COVID19 patient, exercises during his rehabilitation at Theseus rehabilitation center, in Athens, Greece, Tuesday, Mar. 9, 2021.
A physical therapist holds 75 year old Dimitris Katsiboubas’, hand, a post COVID19 patient, during his rehabilitation at Theseus rehabilitation center, in Athens, Greece, Tuesday, Mar. 9, 2021.

Returned to his room after his session was over, his wife, Anastasia Kastibouba, made sure he was comfortable. She fluffed his pillow and caressed his head while a tear rolled down her cheek.

She was always on his side, fighting alongside him.  

Anastasia Katsibouba, left, caresses her husband Dimitris Katsiboubas, 75, a post COVID19 patient, during his therapy at Theseus rehabilitation center in Athens, Tuesday, March 9, 2021

Another post-COVID19 patient on rehab, who wished to remain anonymous, showed his legs, and proudly proclaimed that his muscles were slowly beginning to form again.

His frowned face was a clear sign that he was in pain during physical therapy, but he would not give up. Lying on the treatment bed with his eyes closed, he was being treated by a persistent physical therapist who helped him with leg exercises. 

Sitting on his desk, therapy supervisor Doukas shared a story that stayed with him. A patient in his early 50’s was admitted at the center. He had been intubated in an ICU for around 50 days. He was admitted in a severe condition but managed to walk out of the center, even if it was with a walker, Doukas said. That was a win.

Dimitris Katsiboubas, 75, a post COVID19 patient, lies on his bed during his rehabilitation at Theseus rehabilitation center, in Athens, Greece, Tuesday, Mar. 9, 2021.

Many battle not only physical but also mental problems, such as depression and in some cases guilt, Doukas said.

After surviving COVID19 they have a long way ahead, and many obstacles. Through struggle, persistence, and courage patients emerge winners.

Text and photos by Michael Varaklas