HERSHEY, Pa. — After spending seven days in the hospital recovering from COVID-19, Jacqueline Fair came home to a life very different from what she had known.

“When I came out of the hospital, my medications were all changed, and I was on oxygen,” said the 73-year-old Fair. “I was very limited, as far as what I could do. That started a whole new type of life for me.”

Fair, who sees herself as a fighter, was shocked when she ventured downstairs to do her laundry just one week later and then struggled to climb the steps.

“I tried to come back upstairs and thought I was going to die,” she said. “I had to stop midway to breathe deeply.”

On the advice of her respiratory specialist, Fair turned to the pulmonary rehabilitation program at Penn State Health St. Joseph Medical Center, which has been in operation for more than 30 years. Since the beginning of the year, the program has offered targeted rehabilitation to all post-COVID patients who continue to have symptoms four weeks after their initial diagnosis — a service that had been missing since the start of the pandemic, when only those patients who met certain criteria were eligible for the program.

“At the beginning of all of this, our post-COVID patients had no idea of where to go. Now we know that pulmonary rehabilitation is good for them,” said Lilly Morales, pulmonary rehabilitation lead. “In January 2022, Medicare approved a new post-COVID diagnosis code, making pulmonary rehabilitation available to a lot of patients in our community who don’t have another respiratory condition.”

During the 8- to 12-week program, therapists educate patients about their conditions so they know how to prevent breathing problems and take control of their health. They also guide them through individually paced exercises that strengthen muscles to improve breathing. They use treadmills, recumbent bikes, arm bikes, a sit-down elliptical, free weights and a step box.

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