FOCUS: How Spain’s Covid survivors are battling to regain mobility

Although vaccines have raised hopes that the pandemic will soon end, many people in Spain are still battling to get over serious cases of Covid-19. Here’s how rehab is helping them beat breathlessness, fatigue and mobility problems.

FOCUS: How Spain's Covid survivors are battling to regain mobility
COVID-19 patient Jesus Nogales (R) at a physiotherapy session at the Isabel Zendal Hospital in Madrid on April 19, 2021. Photos: PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU/AFP

Although the vaccines have raised hopes the pandemic will soon end, many who are battling to get over a serious bout of coronavirus continue to struggle with breathlessness, fatigue and mobility problems.

“I can’t walk on my own,” admits Carolina Gallardo, 51, who is having to learn how to walk again at a rehabilitation centre at Isabel Zendal hospital.”I can’t use my hands — look at my hair, I can’t even put it up on my own.”

Pulling herself up from her chair, she clings on tightly to the parallel bars, slowly moving her foot in what is obviously a huge effort.

With an arm around her waist, a physiotherapist gently urges her on, encouraging her to put her weight first on one foot then on the other.

Built in just three months at a cost of over €150 million ($180 million), the Isabel Zendal hospital opened its doors in December to treat Covid patients although its rehabilitation centre was only inaugurated this month.

Inside the centre is a treadmill, exercise balls and a ramp as well as wooden blocks and a large mirror so patients can check their posture.

Here, experts help recovering Covid-19 patients who struggle with continued respiratory problems or have lost their “motor capacity, to the point that holding a spoon or opening a bottle” is impossible, explains Dr Jose Lopez Araujo.

Patients walk around with electrodes attached to their bodies, or with a pulse oximeter on their finger, a device that monitors the pulse rate and oxygen levels in the blood.

On the wall is a poster with a quote from “Rocky”, the 1976 hit film about an underdog boxer: “Going one more round when you don’t think you can, that’s what makes all the difference in your life”.

Covid-19 patient Juan Macero at the rehabilitation centre, where Covid patients drag an oxygen tank with them everywhere, even when exercising on a treadmill.

– A survival miracle –

Gallardo has come an awful long way since being in the intensive care unit which she barely remembers.

“I’m a miraculous survivor. I shouldn’t have made it,” she says breathily, a transparent tube connecting her nose to an oxygen tank.

She has only recently recovered her ability to talk.

“I couldn’t close my mouth, a physiotherapist has been working with me on stretches so I can close my mouth.

“I could hardly speak, I couldn’t even hear my own voice but then I started hearing it and now I’m talking,” she explains in a soft voice.

“It’s a devastating disease.”

Jesús Nogales, 68, spent about a month in intensive care.

“I was unconscious, sedated, I had no idea what was going on. For me it was like the world didn’t exist,” he told AFP.

When he finally came round, he was devastated to learn that his wife of 51 years had died of Covid.

Wracked by grief, his body just shut down.

Patient Carolina Gallardo is helped to stand up by her physiotherapist. Although the vaccines have raised hopes the pandemic will soon end, many  of those who are battling to get over a serious bout of coronavirus continue to struggle with breathlessness, fatigue and mobility problems.

– Limbs ‘like jelly’ –

“When I left the intensive care, it was like my whole body had turned to jelly. I had absolutely no strength. I had to relearn how to walk, to eat, and to move,” he says.

“I remember them giving me a solid meal of rice and when I took the first mouthful, I thought it wasn’t cooked because I had no strength in my jaw to chew,” he says.

He has since regained the ability to eat properly, happily listing the foods he can once again enjoy.

Like many Covid patients, Nogales lost his sense of smell when he first caught the virus and says he could have easily picked up “a glass of bleach” without realising it wasn’t water.

He is now working with physiotherapists at the centre to get his lung capacity back to normal.

“I don’t want to end up in a wheelchair,” he says.

Spain has been hit hard by the pandemic, recording more than 77,000 deaths from over 3.4 million cases.

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Spain rules out EU’s advice on compulsory Covid-19 vaccination 

Spain’s Health Ministry said Thursday there will be no mandatory vaccination in the country following the European Commission’s advice to Member States to “think about it” and Germany’s announcement that it will make vaccines compulsory in February.

Spain rules out EU's advice on compulsory Covid-19 vaccination 
A Spanish man being vaccinated poses with a custom-made T-shirt showing Spain's chief epidimiologist Fernando Simón striking a 'Dirty Harry/Clint Eastwood' pose over the words "What part of keep a two-metre distance don't you understand?' Photo: José Jordan

Spain’s Health Minister Carolina Darias on Thursday told journalists Covid-19 vaccines will continue to be voluntary in Spain given the “very high awareness of the population” with regard to the benefits of vaccination.

This follows the words of European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen on Thursday, urging Member States to “think about mandatory vaccination” as more cases of the Omicron variant are detected across Europe. 

READ ALSO: Is Spain proving facts rather than force can convince the unvaccinated?

“I can understand that countries with low vaccine coverage are contemplating this and that Von der Leyen is considering opening up a debate, but in our country the situation is absolutely different,” Darias said at the press conference following her meeting with Spain’s Interterritorial Health Council.

According to the national health minister,  this was also “the general belief” of regional health leaders of each of Spain’s 17 autonomous communities she had just been in discussion with over Christmas Covid measures. 

READ MORE: Spain rules out new restrictions against Omicron variant

Almost 80 percent of Spain’s total population is fully vaccinated against Covid-19, a figure which is around 10 percent higher if looking at those who are eligible for the vaccine (over 12s). 

It has the highest vaccination rate among Europe’s most populous countries.

Germany announced tough new restrictions on Thursday in a bid to contain its fourth wave of Covid-19 aimed largely at the country’s unvaccinated people, with outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel speaking in favour of compulsory vaccinations, which the German parliament is due to vote on soon.

Austria has also already said it will make Covid-19 vaccines compulsory next February, Belgium is also considering it and Greece on Tuesday said it will make vaccination obligatory for those over 60.

But for Spain, strict Covid-19 vaccination rules have never been on the table, having said from the start that getting the Covid-19 jabs was voluntary. 

There’s also a huge legal implication to imposing such a rule which Spanish courts are unlikely to look on favourably. 

Stricter Covid restrictions and the country’s two states of alarm, the first resulting in a full national lockdown from March to May 2020, have both been deemed unconstitutional by Spain’s Constitutional Court. 

READ ALSO: Could Spain lock down its unvaccinated or make Covid vaccines compulsory?

The Covid-19 health pass to access indoor public spaces was also until recently consistently rejected by regional high courts for breaching fundamental rights, although judges have changed their stance favouring this Covid certificate over old Covid-19 restrictions that affect the whole population.

MAP: Which regions in Spain now require a Covid health pass for daily affairs?

“In Spain what we have to do is to continue vaccinating as we have done until now” Darias added. 

“Spaniards understand that vaccines are not only a right, they are an obligation because we protect others with them”.

What Spanish health authorities are still considering is whether to vaccinate their 5 to 11 year olds after the go-ahead from the European Medicines Agency, with regions such as Madrid claiming they will start vaccinating their young children in December despite there being no official confirmation from Spain’s Vaccine Committee yet.

READ MORE: Will Spain soon vaccinate its children under 12?

Spain’s infection rate continues to rise day by day, jumping 17 points up to 234 cases per 100,000 people on Thursday. There are now also five confirmed cases of the Omicron variant in the country, one through community transmission.

Hospital bed occupancy with Covid patients has also risen slightly nationwide to 3.3 percent, as has ICU Covid occupancy which now stands at 8.4 percent, but the Spanish government insists these figures are “almost three times lower” than during previous waves of the coronavirus pandemic.