Inside COVID’s‘InvisibleHospitals’— where the sickest fight to go home

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More than 100,000 people have been hospitalized with COVID-19 in Canada since the start of the pandemic.

The sickest are discharged from scarce, acute care hospital beds — but aren’t able to return home.

Instead, they are admitted to another type of facility:

a rehabilitation hospital.

This is the story of three COVID-19 rehab patients and the health-care teams fighting to help them recover.

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Paty Romero, 56

Full-time caregiver for her infant granddaughter

As a kidney transplant recipient, Paty was at high risk of severe COVID.

She was not yet eligible for a vaccine when she contracted the virus.

Paty has four children and six grandchildren.

58 days in acute care hospital. 78 days in rehab hospital.

Shaun Balkaran, 53

Mechanic

Shaun has five adult sons.

He didn’t want to be vaccinated. The side effects worried him.

What did you make of COVID? I just thought it was a joke — and then, it was just like a big flu that was going around. We weren't wearing masks. We were going anywhere we wanted to. — Shaun Balkaran

116 days in acute care hospital. 127 days in rehab hospital.

Chris Smith, 51

IT Project Manager

Chris took COVID seriously and heeded all the precautions.

The same day he was rushed to hospital, he received a text saying he could get his first dose of a COVID vaccine.

Chris woke after six weeks in an induced coma.

My eyes are open, like, I'm looking down seeing all these tubes down my side. I can't move anything. I can't move my hands, can't move my feet. I can't talk. – Chris Smith

161 days in acute care hospital. 33 days in rehab hospital.

Rehab centres were forced to expand quickly to take the pressure off acute care hospitals.

West Park Healthcare Centre opened 23 long-term ventilation beds and added 70 staff.

Toronto Rehab Bickle Centre opened 60 transitional care beds and added 100 staff.

Toronto Grace Health Centre created 3rd floor long-term ventilation unit and added 175 staff.

I don't think that a lot of people understand what these rehabilitation hospitals do or that they even exist. It's the hospital you don't know until you need it. — Dr. Mark Bayley, Medical Director, Toronto Rehab — UHN

It takes a team of health-care specialists, providing around-the-clock care, to help a patient recover.

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COVID patients fight the lingering impacts of the virus — and the ICU interventions which saved their lives.

After being sedated for nearly a month, Paty’s body is so weak that her left hand trembles uncontrollably.

Chris was put on an ECMO machine: a last resort for the sickest patients. His blood was pumped outside his body and oxygenated before being returned.

The life-saving machine didn’t allow blood flow to reach his extremities — and four of his toes turned black.

Once a day, Chris’ toes are cleaned with saline, swabbed with antiseptic and rebandaged.

His care team believes they will heal.

In rehab, severe COVID patients have to reteach their bodies the most basic skills.

Breathing. Eating. Walking

Paty has been on a feeding tube for three months.

This week, she began eating on her own again.

Vanilla pudding, mmm. This is better than sex. Trust me, wow. — Paty Romero

Among the cruellest of COVID complications: nerve damage.

It can take years to heal completely.

The mental battle is just as arduous.

The mind knows what is possible.

The body needs more time.

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The financial toll of being in hospital for months can be devastating.

Household bills continue to mount while income is cut off.

Government support exists — but not all patients know about it. For those who do get it, the money is time-limited or isn’t always enough.

Some patients have to rely on donations.

COVID is making you go broke? I am broke. — Shaun Balkaran

Homecoming: The real rehab starts now.

After eight months in four hospitals, Shaun is returning home.

He is not sure when he will be able to work again.

Chris’ lungs have healed so successfully that he no longer requires surgery.

The real rehab starts now. Everything we do here is just a simulation of what things are like when you actually go home, but nothing prepares you for the real thing. — Dr. Raphael Rush, Clinical Director, Toronto Grace Health Centre

Paty will continue therapy from home for many more months.

This has taught me so much. It has hurt me so much. And I just have to just continue on, with my head up high, and continue on walking straight. That's all I can do. — Paty Romero

While Paty was recovering from COVID, her sixth grandchild was born.

This is the moment she has been waiting for.

Watch the full story as featured on Global’s The New Reality:

Click to play video: 'An exclusive look inside COVID’s rehabilitation hospitals' An exclusive look inside COVID’s rehabilitation hospitals
An exclusive look inside COVID’s rehabilitation hospitals – Jan 29, 2022