Island Health Post COVID-19 Recovery Clinic offers hope for patients with long COVID

ISLAND-WIDE - A healthy, active 28 year old with no pre-existing conditions, Sarah Mitchell tested positive for COVID-19 only weeks before she was eligible for her first vaccination.

She struggled with difficulty breathing and exhaustion and continued to experience shortness of breath, fatigue, and ‘brain fog’ for months, finally taking an extended leave from her job in July 2021.

Today, she is one of the first patients to receive care at the new Island Health Post COVID-19 Recovery Clinic which opened March 1 at the Royal Jubilee Hospital (RJH) in Victoria.

“My life changed overnight and I will never be the same person I was before contracting COVID-19. After I left my first appointment at the clinic I had a little cry because I was so relieved,” says Mitchell. “It is the best medical care I have ever received.”

The RJH clinic is one of five Post-COVID Recovery Clinics in British Columbia established under the umbrella of the provincial Post-COVID-19 Interdisciplinary Clinical Care Network (PC-ICCN).

The aim of the clinics is to support the best possible outcomes for patients like Sarah Mitchell who are still experiencing severe symptoms three months or longer after a COVID-19 infection. 

“Symptoms of long COVID can include persistent exhaustion, cognitive changes, difficulty concentrating, insomnia, and breathlessness that can’t be explained,” says Dr. Jessica Belle, an internal medicine physician at the clinic.

“These post viral long term effects were recorded in the original SARS epidemic, but because of the scale of this pandemic we are seeing larger numbers of people diagnosed with long COVID.”

Patients can be referred through a physician or nurse practitioner. The RJH clinic is supported by four physicians and staffed by nurses, an occupational therapist, physiotherapist, social worker, clerical support, and a research assistant. Patients are treated for a maximum of 18 months with a focus on self-management of symptoms.

Care includes in person and virtual physician appointments, large virtual education sessions, and small therapeutic group classes. 

“We coach people on managing their symptoms to a point where they can achieve a similar quality of life to what they had prior to COVID. This allows people to get back to doing some of the things that are meaningful to them while ensuring they are pacing themselves while their bodies heal,” says Jennifer Hodges, an occupational therapist at the clinic.

“We also focus heavily on group education, where patients can trade information and support one another in sessions facilitated by our staff.”

“My patients tell me they feel hopeful that there are tools to improve the way they feel,” says Dr. Belle. “There are so many things we can’t control about the pandemic but there are ways we can help our patients to feel better. Having these resources is so important.”

Sarah Mitchell was originally a patient at a Post-COVID Recovery Clinic at St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver, but having the clinic located on Vancouver Island is much more convenient.

“Dr. Belle and the rest of the staff were so attentive, empathetic and knowledgeable,” she says. “I felt heard in all that I was saying, and I felt seen in all the symptoms I was displaying.”

While there is still much to be learned about long COVID, Dr. Belle and her colleagues receive the most up to date peer reviewed research through the BCCDC, in addition to compiling their own research and data collected from patients who visit the clinic. 

“One of the more profound things I’ve learned as a healthcare provider in this clinic is the sense of loss reported by people living with long COVID,” she says. “They can feel like their symptoms are invisible. We are here to help them feel better and to provide a sense of validation. We work very hard to be understanding and accepting.”

“Our patients are telling us they feel validated simply by connecting with the clinic and more hopeful after dealing with symptoms on their own for many months,” says Hodges. “It’s a long road for our patients, but I am looking forward to seeing their improvements.”

For her part, Sarah Mitchell is more confident that with the help of the clinic and its staff, she will fully recover some day. 

“I’m painfully optimistic,” she says. “I say that because the progress of this disease is not linear and whenever I think I am starting to feel better, I often take two steps back. Now that I have been referred to this clinic, I do feel more hopeful moving forward.”

The best protection from COVID-19 is vaccination, including a booster shot. For more information, please visit https://www2.gov.bc.ca/gov/content/covid-19/vaccine/register.

For more information about the Post-COVID Interdisciplinary Clinical Care Network (including symptom information sheets and educational videos), please visit phsa.ca/postCOVID.

About Island Health:

Island Health provides health care and support services to more than 860,000 people on Vancouver Island, the islands in the Salish Sea and the Johnstone Strait, and mainland communities north of Powell River.

With more than 27,000 staff and over 2,900 physician partners, 1,000 volunteers, and the dedicated support of foundations and auxiliaries, Island Health delivers a broad range of health services, including: public health services, primary health care, home and community care, mental health and addictions services, acute care in hospitals, and much more across a huge, geographically diverse region.