COVID-19 is most known as a virus that causes respiratory disease. It has had varying effects on people infected by it, with symptoms as basic as a headache to the inability to breathe or extreme fatigue. Currently, there have been more than 3 million cases with 46,494 deaths directly due to complications resulting from contracting COVID-19 just within the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
It has been just over a year since I got COVID and had a double lung transplant to save my life. The recovery process has been anything but easy. It has also been a fast-paced crash course in pulmonology, the study of lung anatomy, physiology, and function. Not only did I have to learn how to breathe all over again, but I also had to learn how to do it better than ever before.
It all began with a stay at an inpatient physical rehabilitation hospital for 30 days. Breathing better meant increasing my endurance so I wouldn’t tire so quickly while being physically active. That was the first-time bicycling was introduced to me as a method of improving my lung function. Initially, I was lucky if I could peddle for three minutes before getting tired. By the time I was discharged, I was able to bicycle on a stationary bike for 10 to 15 minutes.
My pulmonary therapy continued on an outpatient basis in which I had sessions three times a week for roughly two hours. I still worked with a stationary bike, but not as often. I completed the outpatient program and was on my own to continue being physically active with some focus on exercises the therapists recommended I continue at home.
I would love to tell you I did everything they recommended, that I was surpassing every expectation and becoming stronger than I ever was before, but the truth is I struggled. I lacked motivation. I fell into a mental funk. It took me several months to begin seeing I needed to work on my attitude, that I needed to be physically active so my new lungs would become strong and support me through this second chance I was given.
Not long ago, I was reading a blog thread on Facebook about a man that had a double lung transplant a few years ago and took up bicycling. So far, the longest trip he’s made was about 100 miles, bicycling from his home to the hospital that performed his double lung transplant and back. He is about 15 years older than me. I thought to myself, “If this man in his mid-sixties can do that, why can’t I?” I wiped the dust off my mountain bike after speaking with my pulmonologist and getting some guidance.
I cycled 2.5 miles my first ride and began increasing my distance quickly. It wasn’t long before I was riding beyond ten miles each ride. I started noticing improvements. For the first time since getting COVID and having my double lung transplant, I was able to take a nice, slow, deep breathe without coughing. I was able to control my breathing better and was able to “catch my breath” and slow it to a normal rate after being physically active. Of course, I was getting stronger. It surprised me how I felt like I completed a full body workout after a long bicycle ride. I was also surprised by how much I enjoyed it.
Sometimes, I need a little push or a reason to keep going; something to keep me motivated. I decided to plan/participate in a 38-mile bicycling event. I continued to train and bicycled every week leading up to the day I rode 38 miles within one ride along with friends and support from my family. I was exhausted, but in a good way. I was proud of what I accomplished. The clear and obvious thing is, bicycling improves respiratory function. The increase in your breathing rate while cycling improves and strengthens the muscles around your lungs. The healthier and stronger the lung, the more oxygen-rich air it can absorb. Overtime, the lung capacity will increase, your abdominal muscles become stronger and more formed, and your respiratory muscles become more engaged and work efficiently.
I admit, I took a break after the 38-mile ride but will continue to bicycle as I am actively looking for my next event to participate in; that thing I need to hold me accountable. Do I plan on setting any records or finishing first place in a race? The answer is no, but I do plan on winning the marathon!
Rick Bressler is a husband, father, and Veteran of the United States Army, who wants to share his experiences as a COVID survivor to help promote getting vaccinated and wearing a mask.