Physiotherapists help sickest COVID-19 patients on the road to recovery

Westmead Hospital physiotherapist Hariette Esterman in the intensive care unit.

Hariette Esterman jokes that physiotherapists might be the only people in the world asking people with COVID-19 to cough.

The allied health team at Westmead Hospital uses humour to help understand the new world they found themselves in when the pandemic completely changed life as we know it.

Hariette has worked at Westmead Hospital for six years and soon found herself drawn towards intensive care, helping patients recover from serious ailments such as heart and lung conditions.

A physiotherapist’s role there includes helping patients with their breathing by clearing mucous from their lungs and airways – which is why they ask COVID-19 patients to cough as part of their recovery.

  • Physiotherapists around the world are using a NSW training program to treat COVID-19 patients in intensive care – read more here
The emotional moment a patient stood for the first time in months.

“So far we’ve seen five patients from intensive care through to the COVID-19 ward and assisted their discharge home, and we’re still treating one patient who spent more than 60 days on life support, which is quite remarkable,” Hariette said.

“In intensive care we do a lot of rehabilitation. Being unconscious for any extended period of time leads to serious strength and muscle loss, so we start just by getting patients to sit up and look at their trunk control, legs, arms and so on.

“A few days ago we had a patient stand with the assistance of three physiotherapists for the first time in months. It was so rewarding to see the shock and joy on her face; she had a grin from ear to ear. Those are the moments I love most as a physio. We develop a close bond with patients and get to help them on their journey to recovery.”

Another highlight was witnessing a patient be reunited with his family for the first time in weeks, and teaching his son how to help the patient walk as he continued with his recovery at home.

Hariette said one of the hardest parts of the pandemic has been the isolation, as patients with COVID-19 can’t have visitors due to concerns about spreading the highly infectious disease.

One way physiotherapists combat this is by giving a wave and a smile to their patients through the glass doors before they put on their personal protective equipment, which includes gloves, gown, mask, face shield and hair net.

Hariette is a personal protective equipment (PPE) trainer for her department, helping fellow physios feel confident and safe treating patients with infectious diseases.

“We make an effort to get to know the patients, and some of them have said their sessions with us are the highlight of their day,” Hariette said.

“Mental health has a big impact on recovery so we make an effort to get to know each patient, share a laugh with them, get them smiling and brighten their day.”

Hariette has also been involved in training up other physiotherapists for intensive care support to ensure the hospital could cope in the event of a surge of COVID-19 patients.

“I’ve been so well supported and felt confident the whole time that we could handle this pandemic.

“It’s really nice to see there’s always someone there to help and to be part of a great, collaborative team at Westmead Hospital.”