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Dancing For Life

By Mike Walbert

The high fever started soon after Arlene Dalessio returned home from a vacation cruise. It was early March 2020, and COVID-19 infections were climbing in New York City, where her cruise ship docked.

For days, the fever persisted. Then, the 74-year-old suburban Philadelphia grandmother experienced trouble breathing while talking on the phone. Her family grew increasingly worried it was the coronavirus. When her condition continued getting worse, Arlene’s daughter drove her to a local emergency room.

Little did they know it would be more than a month before Arlene would leave intensive care.

“That was it for five weeks,” Arlene says, noting she was in a semi-induced coma, intubated for 16 days of her stay and heavily medicated. “I was in the hospital, and I remember nothing.”

When Arlene came to after those five difficult weeks, she needed to transition to the next step of COVID-19 recovery. With her mother unable to remember anything and still unaware she even contracted the virus, Arlene’s daughter researched options and found Good Shepherd Rehabilitation Hospital in Allentown.

Arlene was admitted to Good Shepherd’s dedicated COVID-19 rehabilitation unit and began her therapy right away. Arlene told her care team her goal was to dance again. But before she could achieve that, she had to relearn everything. The grueling battle with COVID-19 left Arlene’s legs and upper body weak. She couldn’t walk or feed herself, let alone dance.

Despite her physical condition, Arlene’s team of physicians, nurses and therapists remained steadfast, outlining a recovery path. Arlene eagerly embraced it because she wanted to get up, move and improve.

“Once I realized I need this, I told myself, ‘I’m doing it. We’re doing it. I don’t care how difficult it is,’” says Arlene. “Good Shepherd’s inpatient rehabilitation was intense and difficult, but it worked.”

Arlene came to Good Shepherd in a wheelchair, barely knowing where she was. Her caregivers prepared her for a stay of a month, but Arlene had other plans. Two-and-a-half weeks later, Arlene could walk and was primed for her next challenge. “Thank God that Good Shepherd took me,” Arlene says through tears.

Arlene returned home and started outpatient physical and occupational therapy with Good Shepherd. “I had a long way to go,” she says. Hesitant to leave home because of the virus, Arlene stayed on track with her Allentown-based team by logging on to virtual visits with telehealth appointments.  She continues to improve her endurance, stamina, balance and strength, all while reducing the shortness of breath COVID-19 brought on.

“It’s wonderful,” she says of telehealth therapy. “I can do it right in my house, and it works.”

One of the reasons Arlene says she enjoys the telehealth option is how it keeps her accountable. On therapy days, she logs into the virtual appointment and stays on task.  Plus, she likes talking with her care team, sharing any aches or concerns.

Through her determination and commitment to get better, this vibrant mother of three grown children now walks unassisted in her condo, washes clothes, vacuums, cooks, and manages her bills — all the everyday tasks she was unsure she’d ever be able to do on her own again.

The best part of recovery, according to Arlene? She can dance again — especially to Maroon 5, her favorite band. “I dance and exercise with music,” says Arlene.

“I’m back, I’m doing great,” she says. “If it wasn’t for Good Shepherd I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing.”

For anyone undergoing rehabilitation from the devastating physical impacts of COVID-19, Arlene has a simple message.

“There’s hope,” she says. “God gave me a second chance at life. I try to look at things positively and happily.” 

Mike Walbert is a marketing and communications specialist at Good Shepherd.