Long Covid: Solent MS Centre in Portsmouth helps people with Covid-19 after-effects

WHEN the Solent Multiple Sclerosis Therapy Centre in Portsmouth was finally able to reopen in March this year its team had no idea they would become a beacon of hope for people dealing with the after-effects of Covid-19.

By Fiona Callingham
Tuesday, 17th August 2021, 10:31 am

With its pressurised diving chamber, oxygen concentrators and physiotherapy room, the centre in Hilsea has provided therapy for people with MS, cancer and other well-known conditions for 37 years.

However, as they opened their doors once again it became clear their services were in demand by an entirely new type of patient.

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Solent MS centre is offering treatments to people with long Covid. Staff Claire Barnett and Ruth Jansen Picture: Habibur Rahman

In a recent government study it was reported more than two million people in England are thought to have had one or more Covid-19 symptoms lasting at least 12 weeks.

Around a fifth of people surveyed between September 2020 and February 2021 said they had a Covid symptom previously, with over a third reporting persistent symptoms lasting at least 12 weeks.

Around a tenth of those with symptoms said they lasted at least 12 weeks and were severe.

Many people who catch Covid feel better within days or weeks and make a full recovery in 12.

Michelle Holland-Washington on an oxygen concentrator Picture: Habibur Rahman

But for some the symptoms can last longer. And that is what we know as long Covid.

The symptoms can be debilitating and include extreme tiredness, shortness of breath, problems with memory, insomnia and heart palpitations among others.

While the symptoms are known, how to treat the condition is not. At the moment patients are given support with managing the symptoms.

Centre manager Jo Jennings Picture: Habibur Rahman

So when the MS Centre was able to start treating its regular patients again the team started receiving enquiries from people suffering from long Covid.

Centre manager Jo Jennings said: ‘We started getting people who had long Covid contacting us in April to see if we were able to offer them our treatments.

‘We spoke to other MS centres to see what they were providing and worked with them on what was appropriate for those patients. Our centre is really the only one in this area providing these treatments, the next closest one is in Guildford. So we do see people from far away.

‘We really wanted to be able to help because the way long Covid was affecting some people was really awful.’

Patients who don't have long Covid use the oxygen chamber Picture: Habibur Rahman

The charity was able to take on around seven long Covid patients and developed treatment plans on advice from the national network of MS centres.

Patients start off by using an oxygen concentrator for periods of time. This is thought to help with the breathing and fatigue.

If they are ready they can then move on to the hyperbaric chamber. The rounded, steel device – bought from the navy – recreates the pressures experienced while diving in water.

Long Covid patients are started at depths of 8ft, and can move on to 16ft with sessions lasting up to an hour and a half at a time.

Again, it is thought this improves breathing and fatigue levels.

For mum-of-two and former marathon runner Bec Gregory the use of the oxygen concentrators and pressure chamber has made a difference.

Volunteer Jane Page operating the oxygen chamber Picture: Habibur Rahman

The 41-year-old from Winchester caught Covid in March 2020, before everyone understood exactly what it did.

Her initial symptoms were extreme fatigue and heart palpitations, which then developed into serious shakes and a racing heart rate as well as problems with memory loss.

As a ‘fit and active’ person it was a shock to her and her husband Andy that more than a year later she was still suffering with severe symptoms – leading to her giving up her work as a freelance writer and the family having to move in with her parents for support.

She said: ‘It's baffling how people are affected by Covid – I’ve many friends who fortunately had it mildly.

‘For me, it didn't feel like flu. It has been very debilitating from the start and incredibly hard emotionally to go from being social, fit and healthy, living life actively and looking after my children to 17 months of debilitating fatigue, unusual heart and neurological symptoms, and relying on others for everything.

‘I've run the London Marathon and trekked through the Himalayas, but these days simply taking a few steps, even brushing my teeth or talking can make me feel ill and a type of exhaustion I've never realised could exist.’

But after a few sessions at the centre Bec is ‘hopeful’ this could change.

She added: ‘I'm so grateful to have found the support of the MS clinic opening their charity service to long Covid patients.

‘After a few sessions I've noticed a difference with the brain fatigue, neurological symptoms and being able to sit up for longer - although only slightly. I've managed to go from only being about to read a couple of sentences to being able to read a few pages of a book.

‘Prior to the oxygen therapy I could only talk for a few minutes before becoming confused and exhausted however I'm gaining more momentum with conversations. It's early days with the hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT) but I'm hoping after a series of more sessions I'll be witnessing a vast improvement.

‘Having looked at the research of HBOT it seems very promising. Only time will tell.’

The staff at the centre say that seeing some of the difficulties faced by their long Covid patients is upsetting.

Clare Barnett, assistant manager at the centre, said: ‘It’s heartbreaking. Most of them are fit, healthy people. The majority of them did running, cycling, really fit, healthy, people in their 20s and 30s not able to go to work.

‘I’ve seen them come into the centre in wheelchairs because they’re unable to walk from the car.

‘Some have had to give up work, just think that’s awful in the space of a few months. I think this is going to be the next pandemic, so many people have had Covid so how many of them are going to be left with these symptoms?’

Jo added: ‘I would say if anyone is suffering with long Covid and is interested in trying our treatments just give us a call for a chat to find out a bit more.’

Patients are asked to make donations to the charity to use the services, of up to £21 an hour to use the chamber. However, seeking this privately would cost upwards of £100.

Call 023 9269 9116 to find out more or email [email protected]

Or visit msntc.org.uk to find out which MS centre is closest to you.

‘When I walk out it feels like I have a new set of lungs’

PRIMARY school teacher Michelle Holland-Washington was left unable to work due to her symptoms of long Covid.

The 46-year-old caught coronavirus in October and was diagnosed with long Covid the following April.

She heard about hyperbaric oxygen therapy after speaking with other teachers across the UK who had similar symptoms.

Since there is no service on the Isle of Wight, where Michelle lives, she has been travelling to Portsmouth to attend the Solent MS Centre.

For now she is using an oxygen concentrator, and hopes to progress to the pressure chamber soon.

She said: ‘I had been suffering really bad shortness of breath and bits of brain fog.

‘I started back at work at the end of June but had all that time off before.

‘It was a rollercoaster. I would have a good day but then I would push myself too much.

‘I just have to learn to listen to my body. Anything from just a bit of a longer walk to doing the hoovering was wiping me out. It’s had a huge impact on my mental health too.’

Since using the oxygen concentrator Michelle has seen a difference.

‘It’s just lovely coming here, it’s given me a bit of a boost,’ she said.

‘When walking out I feel like I’ve got a new pair of lungs.

‘My fatigue isn’t as bad and I’ve had a bit more energy.

‘I’m hoping the pressure chamber will make a difference.’

A message from the Editor, Mark Waldron

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Solent MS centre is offering treatments to people with Long Covid Pictured: Patients (who don't have long Covid) using the Oxygen Chamber Picture: Habibur Rahman