“Help!” Martha Barrera gasped, struggling to breathe as she stumbled from the shower. The 50-year-old had been suffering from COVID-19 for 11 days, but what had started out as swollen glands and a cough had quickly morphed into high fevers, crushing body aches, inability to smell, and hallucinations.
Bedridden for days, Martha had been desperate for a shower, but in the steam-filled air, her struggle to breathe intensified, and she collapsed. Her boyfriend, hearing her faintly tapping on a nearby dresser, rushed upstairs and took her to the hospital where shockingly, staff refused to admit her.
“Your oxygen levels are at 88,” they said, somberly. “We’re sorry, but we’re only taking in COVID patients with oxygen levels below 80.” How will I get better? she despaired, when suddenly, a nurse appeared.
“Trust me, you’re safer at home, where you can walk around and get fresh air.” This echoed something her sister, who was also a nurse, had told Martha when she’d been diagnosed. “Get outside, take deep breaths, and keep moving,” she’d advised. With those words echoing in her head, Martha made up her mind: I’m going to fight this. I’m going to survive.
When she returned home, Martha switched on the TV to see Chris Cuomo, a television journalist who had also been fighting the virus, demonstrating breathing exercises that had helped him. Recommended by Dr. Sarfaraz Munshi from Queen’s Hospital in London, the exercises were meant to expand the lower part of the lungs so any mucus there could be dislodged and coughed out. Cuomo also stressed the importance of not lying down on one’s back, which tends to close the airways and make it harder to breathe.
ll give this a try, Martha decided. Every hour on the dot during the day, she lifted her arms to expand her lungs, took five deep breaths, and held each breath for five seconds. After the sixth deep breath, she gave a big cough, which, though painful, seemed to loosen the mucus.
Martha repeated this routine twice, then lay flat on her stomach in bed, taking slightly deeper breaths for the next 10 minutes. Please let this work, she prayed each time she’d do the exercises. And though it was an uphill battle, Martha could feel her breathing becoming easier and her energy levels improving a little bit each day.
To her relief, on May 22nd, Martha tested negative for COVID-19. And while she is still being careful and practicing social distancing, she says she has a brandnew lease on life, which includes plans to marry her boyfriend. “I’m grateful to be alive and have my health back,” she beams. “It’s a huge gift!”
Tips From Doctors
Steam in the morning.
Urgent care physician Jehanne Julien- Banica, D.O., reports taking a steamy bath for 15 minutes first thing helped her recover from COVID-19 by calming her early-morning cough. And Vicks VapoRub applied to her chest helped ease the burning sensation that breathing caused in her throat throughout the day.
Orthopedic surgeon James Sanfilippo, M.D., relied on electrolyte-rich drinks to stay fully hydrated while recovering from COVID-19. Hydration is especially key because fluids help thin out respiratory secretions so they’re easier to clear from the lungs. The faster they’re cleared, the faster you heal!
This article originally appeared in our print magazine.