Wellness Wednesday: How the Fitness Habit Helped One Journalist Recover from COVID

My devotion to fitness aided in my recovery.

Jorge Milian, Post reporter’s hellish month with COVID-19, The Palm Beach Post, April 10, 2021

I recognized the gratitude in these words. My exercise teaching experience gave me a whole lot of helping hands when I pulled myself up from post-Intensive Care syndrome following my lengthy hospitalization in 2019. Although my illness pre-dated COVID, I felt a sort of kinship with Jorge Milian’s experience. I wanted to find out more.

Here is what I learned in my research, including a telephone conversation with Jorge a few weeks ago.

Palm Beach Post reporter Jorge Milian

In his coverage of the COVID pandemic’s impact on his beat of Lake Worth Beach and Boynton Beach, Palm Beach Post reporter and journalist Jorge Milian has written tributes to fallen community leaders and other victims of the virus, stories on the verbal attacks on the city’s Central American migrants, and articles on the eviction moratorium. What he never expected to write was a story on his own hellish encounter with COVID-19 at the end of January.

Hellish month

I had a raging fever, my head felt like it was on the verge of exploding and each of the 206 bones in my body ached.

That began around 4-5 weeks of unpleasantness that, at its worst, had me wondering if I would wind up like some of the people I’ve written about since last March in the Palm Beach Post who died after getting COVID-19 (and if would I have time to alert the Post’s editors not to use the headshot that makes me look 20 pounds heavier in my obituary?)

I can joke about it now. But there’s nothing funny about running a high fever for days and feeling like you are trying to breathe under water while your doctor is wondering aloud whether you should check into a hospital – a thought that terrified me even more than the unexplainable nightmares and hallucinations that dogged me for around 10 unrelenting, miserable days and nights.

Walking from one side of the house to the other seemed like a marathon. The worst of it was at night when I would wake up gasping for air, almost as if I had forgotten to breathe.

Fatigue was another big issue. For around two weeks after getting sick, I would sleep for 10 hours then spend the rest of the day feeling like I needed a nap.

My doctor told me I should seriously consider going to the hospital if my oxygen level fell below 90. My oxygen level never dropped under 92, but still low enough for thoughts of ventilators and doctors in space suits to cram my thoughts.

Jorge Milian, Post reporter’s hellish month with COVID-19, The Palm Beach Post, April 10, 2021

Exercise habit

In a recent conversation, Jorge told me that before being bedridden by COVID-19 for 15 days, he had not been sick in his 26 years with The Palm Beach Post. He is an active 61-year-old, a diligent gym-goer (“a little bit of a maniac”), and former runner. He credits his lifetime fitness habit with his quick comeback.

As sick as I got, I still feel kind of lucky. My devotion to fitness aided in my recovery. [Still], it’s only been in the past couple of weeks that I can go for my hour-long bike ride or complete my daily strengthtraining routine without stopping every 15 minutes to catch my breath.

Jorge Milian, Post reporter’s hellish month with COVID-19, The Palm Beach Post, April 10, 2021

His body struggled though what had been comfortable workouts.

When I returned to the gym, it felt like a fever would suddenly rage through my body, heating up like crazy, although my temperature would be normal. But my muscle memory was there to see me though.

Jorge Milian, reporter and journalist

Fitness advice

Jorge is happy to be on the other side of his COVID-19 illness. He is not a long hauler, having been able to resume his full activity routine. And what does he recommend to help others build up their strength?

Find something you like to do and do it. Every day. Consistently. Work up to being active for an hour a day.

Jorge Milian, reporter and journalist

Staying well

Follow the public health recommendations: get vaccinated, wear a mask, and practice social distancing.

I’ve heard a lot of people saying that contracting COVID-19 was no worse than catching the flu, but the virus put this 60-year-old through a physical and mental wringer like I haven’t experienced before.

What I had, you don’t want.

Jorge Milian, Post reporter’s hellish month with COVID-19, The Palm Beach Post, April 10, 2021
Reporter Jorge Milian, photo Thomas Cordy, The Palm Beach Post

Wellness Wednesday: How We Are Navigating Our Return to Normal

From March 2020 through Friday, my husband and I ate only what I prepared for us at home. I’m pleased to have managed our nutrition very well, and our recent bloodwork shows that we are holding our own against disease. I’ll write a post on nutrition another time to share some of the recipes and cooking tips I picked up along the way.

Today, however, I have to write that …. we broke out and ate at not just one but two restaurants this week. One was just okay, and the other was a homecoming.

Comfortably locked in for a year

The pandemic locked us in, and we got habituated to those limits. We found ourselves enjoying each other’s 24/7 company — not a surprise, but what a bonus after 40 years — and engaging outdoors at a distance with neighbors. I didn’t miss outside society very much at all. In fact, I’d decided that hermit living was just my style, or perhaps it was the idea of breaking out of our self-imposed limits that made me anxious.

Many of us have gotten very comfortable with the safety that our isolated environments have provided and taking these initial steps out of our safe, home-controlled environments can cause fear and anxiety.

Dr. Marni Chanoff, integrative psychiatrist at McLean Hospital and Harvard Medical School

Hard-wired for fear

Coming on the heels of a slow recovery from my near-death 2019 illness, the pandemic terrified both of us. The unseen enemy lurked everywhere. We adopted strict cleansing habits. Masks, gloves, and bottles of disinfectant popped up on counters and cabinets around the home and in the car. It was war.

Because our brains have evolved to encode fear so well, it’s hard to turn off.

Kirsten Koenen, professor of psychiatric epidemiology at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health

Taking baby steps toward old behavior

I walked into a grocery store for the first time in nearly a year when we got our first vaccine. The Publix pharmacy was near the bread aisle, and I will associate the sweet scent of dough with freedom for the rest of my life.

When we were fully vaccinated and outdoors, we began to relax around others. I went to Target, to Publix, to the post office. Not all at once, but here and there.

The way to work through anxiety is to take very small steps forward and expose yourself to manageable amounts of anxiety.

Marni Chanoff, integrative psychiatrist at McLean Hospital and Harvard Medical School

One giant step into a restaurant

Then came last week, when the CDC announced that vaccinated people could go maskless. Our daughter’s visit coincided with that announcement, and I made reservations — at an outdoor table — at our old favorite weekly dinner place.

It was the first time I’ve had mahi-mahi since the pandemic hit. And blue cheese dressing. And anything someone else cooked.

My family enjoyed an outdoor dinner at Bimini Twist in West Palm Beach

Choosing to keep new patterns

Still, that dinner did not feel like a homecoming. I hadn’t missed dining among strangers, and that included the wait staff, none of whom were our old regulars. Things change over 15 months. Including us.

A lot of people have found that this year has really allowed them to slowdown, to let go of things, to create new patterns and ways of being.

Marni Chanoff, integrative psychiatrist at McLean Hospital and Harvard Medical School

Two days later, we hit a homerun at our favorite breakfast place, where Latino sisters welcomed us back like family. Oh, how we’d worried about them. Other than being unemployed for three months, they and theirs are all well. Tucking in to a hearty Mediterranean omelet and homemade bread, I knew we were on our way to a new normal.

For a lot of people, it’s going to take some time to readjust to a new norm that isn’t quite pre-pandemic but getting closer.

Dr. John Whyte, chief medical director of WebMD.

How are you handling this phase of our unprecedented life?

How A Dog Saved Our Life

CNN and Palm Beach County’s Big Dog Ranch Rescue rang in the New Year with a mega puppy adoption gala, wrote Wendy Rhodes in The Palm Beach Post.

Photo: Big Dog Ranch Rescue

The event was right on trend to ring out the Year of the Pandemic.

… the hottest commodity during lockdown after toilet paper and sourdough starters turned out to be rescue puppies …

Venessa Friedman, NYT Styles Section

When we adopted our lab Kumba in February, my husband and I had no idea that we’d be on the leading edge of the upwelling of community kindness and care that opened hearts and homes to rescue puppies last year. As Emma Gray Ellis wrote in Wired, the organic surge in adoptions emptied animal shelters as people confined to their homes during lockdown sought companionship.

Or maybe it was the dogs who opened our doors, and then filled our hearts.

Lab rescue saved kumba

Kumba was left at an animal shelter in Puerto Rico in the summer of 2019 by a family that was leaving the island. As a pure Labrador retriever, he was tapped by the Labrador Retriever Rescue of Florida (LRRoF) that fall. In November, he received the necessary rabies vaccine, and he was flown to Ft. Lauderdale in December.

But he was a very sick dog. LRRoF’s vet, xxxx, said he wasn’t sure how Kumba was even able to stand. He weighed just 50 pounds, was desperately anemic, and required transfusions and two rounds of antibiotics before he stabilized. He began to recover at his foster home.

Lab rescue believed in us

Meanwhile, my husband and I were realizing that we were ready for another dog. It had been two years since the death of our beloved chocolate Lab Django, and the awful black hole of absence had morphed into an empty space that begged to be filled. The story of Levi, our friends’ Golden Retriever rescued from Turkey, inspired us to seek out the equivalent rescue organization for Labs. We filled out the LRRoF application, passed our home visit, and scanned the LRRoF website for dogs ready for adoption.

Lucky us: we were the first family to meet Kumba at his foster home in January of last year when our daughter and her Lab Pancho were visiting (LRRoF requires that their rescues meet existing family dogs). We thought this Puerto Rican dog would pick us because we spoke to him in Spanish, but that didn’t seem to matter to him. He was sweet and soulful and ready to be loved, Pancho didn’t care one way or the other, and Kumba’s foster mom approved. We came home and waited for Kumba to fully recover.

On February 2, we brought him home.

We believed in kumba

It was a rocky start. The first thing he did was pee on the antique chest of drawers my mother bought at the Rome flea market in 1961. Of course he did: he was all wound up from the car ride, and we brought him inside immediately instead of giving him a chance to pee outdoors. That never happened again. By the end of the day, we’d found our walking rhythm.

But Kumba was anxious, needy, nervous. He needed to be right next to us. This was easy to accommodate in our retired, homebody schedule, most of the time. But on the occasion when we both were out of the house, we returned to shredded newspapers and chewed up paperbacks. Voracious reader, you bet. We got better about picking up after ourselves. He got used to sleeping his swank dog bed outside our bedroom door. We got use to him lying on the couch.

Kumba was timid at first
Our rescue Lab, Kumba, was timid at first.

Then, on March 13, the country went into lockdown.

Kumba saved our lives

We were suddenly in enforced isolation, and the creature who needed us so began to give us fun and joy and variety. Kumba had increased our household numbers by fifty percent and our household energy by much, much more.

In a recent article for the Associate Press, Mary Esch wrote about how dogs are bringing comfort to isolated residents of a New York nursing home.

The love of an animal is incredible. It releases endorphins, reduces blood pressure, reduces anxiety.

Catherine Farrell, director of therapeutic activities, Hebrew Home

We had no idea a year ago how much we would need this dog. We think it’s probably mutual.