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Home » News » Breathing easier at Easy Street

Breathing easier at Easy Street

Misericordia clinic supports people coping with long COVID
Photo of Kerri Cuthbert
Kerri Cuthbert is Easy Street's registered dietitian.

By Mike Daly
Winnipeg Regional Health Authority
Published Tuesday, November 8, 2022

When an unexpected health detour puts you on a hard road, it's nice to know there's an Easy Street to get you to the supports you need.

Located in Misericordia Health Centre's parkade building, Easy Street is a rehabilitation program where clients can practise the skills they need for independent living after a life-impacting health change such as an acquired brain injury, stroke or – more recently – the long-term effects of COVID-19, commonly called "long COVID."

"Long COVID currently accounts for about half of the clients in the Easy Street program," says Easy Street occupational therapist Esther Hawn, explaining that for some people, the after-effects of COVID can linger long after initial infection from the virus. These can include symptoms such as breathing difficulties, extreme fatigue and difficulties with concentration and cognitive impairment she and other professionals refer to as "brain fog."

“The effects can be devastating," she says. "Many people have to stop working or going to school altogether or have to significantly scale back their daily activities."

Easy Street – staffed by a team of health-care professionals that includes an occupational therapist, a physiotherapist, a social worker and a dietitian – offers customized programming to help patients achieve specific goals, such as a return to work. Easy Street recreates an actual community environment – including a bank machine, car, grocery store and putting green – designed to help clients better manage the real-life physical and cognitive challenges they face on a daily basis.

As Brad Lucas, Easy Street's physiotherapist, explains, "We consult with the client to discuss what their symptoms are, along with their goals for improvement. We include them in the process and then use our expertise to identify challenges. Clients can see any of us or all of us, depending on their needs."

Clients learn that progress against long COVID can be a lengthy process requiring a commitment to small gains over time.

"From a functional standpoint, they are unable to operate at the same level they once did," he says. "The physical and sensory stimulation of daily life can exacerbate the exhaustion associated with long COVID. As a result, gains can take longer, and my initial focus is often on helping them maintain their baseline capabilities, with a view to achieving incremental progress over time."

Susan Mair, the program's social worker, says the impacts of long COVID can be significant, especially on those who expect a speedy return to work.

"If you've worked for a company for 25 years and created a good reputation and now, because of long COVID, you're doing a job that doesn't match your original skill level, that can be really difficult," she says, adding that long COVID clients share some similarity with those who have experienced a traumatic brain injury.

"It's similar in the sense that it's an abrupt shift from ‘what my life was' to ‘what is now.' We offer the encouragement they need to keep going and to help them navigate the systems and supports available to them in the community. We also remind them of the progress they've made."

Clients have to adapt to changes in many parts of their lives, including something as routine as meal planning and preparation.

As Kerri Cuthbert, Easy Street's registered dietitian, explains, "Clients with long COVID sometimes have to adjust their expectations around what they are able to prepare for themselves; what's realistic. Many people who were used to doing a lot in the kitchen have to learn to simplify, while still preparing meals that are nutritious. If long COVID has negatively affected their swallowing, they may require different foods. Others may experience weight gain or weight loss challenges, or even food security issues relating to a loss of employment or a reduction in hours worked."

The range of supports and expertise available through Easy Street make it an important hub for those coping with long COVID symptoms. While some of these supports are available privately or through insurance, their cost and longevity can often be prohibitive, Mair says.

"Employer-supplied health benefits and private insurance can max out pretty quickly. With the open-ended nature of our program, if you need a month or a year, it's open to you. We're not under that kind of pressure, and hopefully our clients don't feel they are under pressure either."

That's an important consideration given long COVID's lasting effects.

"We have the time and expertise to create a robust support system and to set clients up with the community agencies and organizations that can provide long-term support. That allows our clients to stay focused on functional improvements. As a team, we're happy we can help."

From Nov. 6 to 12, Manitoba's health service delivery organizations are celebrating the diverse and highly specialized skills of our province's allied health professionals. Representing nearly 200 disciplines working in every sector and area of our health system, allied health professionals are vital members of our health-care teams.

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