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Thursday, March 09, 2017, 7:20 AM 4:34 PM

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Medical Treatment, Mind Over Matter Help Patient Overcome COVID-19

Written by Tyler Smith

For many people, a COVID-19 attack means a withering struggle that puts the lungs, heart and other organs at risk. Jorge Saenz-Rico faced that struggle. But along with steadfast, specialized medical care, he had another ally: his mind.

Saenz-Rico was working as a Transportation Security Administration (TSA) agent at Denver International Airport in late December 2020 when he felt flu-like symptoms that rapidly progressed. In early January, he and his wife, Nidia Beatriz, tested for COVID-19. Beatriz’s test was negative, but Saenz-Rico’s was positive. By that time, he was very weak.

“I couldn’t go up the stairs,” Saenz-Rico recalled. “I was out of breath.”

An ambulance transported him to Saint Joseph Hospital in Denver, where he continued to struggle. The virus had settled deep in his lungs. But Saenz-Rico had allies waiting to help: the world-renowned pulmonologists of National Jewish Health working alongside a highly skilled critical care team at Saint Joe’s. This team would pull out all the stops to save him.

Saenz-Rico had COVID pneumonia. The virus had inflamed his lungs, which filled with fluid, said Joshua Solomon, MD, a National Jewish Health pulmonologist who was Saenz-Rico’s doctor the night he was admitted to Saint Joe’s. Saenz-Rico “rapidly declined” early in his hospital stay, but he determinedly fought his disease, with the help of Dr. Solomon and the hospital team. He received high amounts of 100% heated and humidified high-flow oxygen – 50 to 60 liters per minute – delivered through a nose cannula.

The cannula and oxygen tanks helped to sustain Saenz-Rico through a grueling 35-day stay at Saint Joe’s. But the challenges were immense. He was alone and couldn’t have visitors. When he turned on his side, his oxygen levels dropped, and he labored to breathe. To get through it, Saenz-Rico thought about his childhood in Laredo, Texas.

Using the Power of the Mind to Fight Illness

The mother of his best friend was a “mind power teacher” who gave classes at her home. Saenz-Rico, around 10 years old, listened to the lessons and absorbed them.

“A few things stuck in my mind,” he said. For example, he learned to meditate and channeled his thinking in positive directions throughout his adult life. He also cultivated a practice of anticipating potential problems and figuring out solutions to them in advance. He applied the techniques during his lengthy hospital stay.

“Every day, I stayed calm and was already prepared for whatever was coming,” Saenz-Rico said. His biggest worry was that his oxygen levels would fall so low that he’d have to go on a ventilator. So he resolved to stay calm when his oxygen dipped.

“I knew if I got excited, my muscles and body would require more of the oxygen that I needed to survive,” Saenz-Rico said.

He used measured breathing to lower his heart rate and meditated before falling asleep. He listened to classical music to relax and clear the “brain fog” that clouded his thinking.

Without his cellphone, Saenz-Rico lost touch with his side business as a real estate broker. He defused that anxiety by connecting to the Internet through the TV, reopened his company and worked every day. He even sold a house from his hospital bed.

Out of the Hospital, on to the Next Recovery Phase

His determination finally paid off. After three weeks, he took a shower by himself. He began walking to the bathroom and taking short trips down the hall, always supported by oxygen. But hurdles remained.

Radiology tests suggested Saenz-Rico had organizing pneumonia, which inflames the lungs’ tiny air sacs and the bronchial tubes that feed them. Dr. Solomon and the team treated the problem with high doses of intravenous steroids. With that, Saenz-Rico quickly recovered and returned home.

Saenz-Rico then met with physical therapists at Saint Joe’s, who prescribed exercises that he continues at home daily. Through his workers compensation from the TSA, he also kept monthly clinic appointments with Dr. Solomon at the Center for Post-COVID Care and Recovery at National Jewish Health.

Dr. Solomon recognized that Saenz-Rico’s lungs were still vulnerable to chronic inflammation. More high-dose steroid treatments came with serious short-term drawbacks, including sleep problems and weight gain. Steroids also increase blood sugar levels, a big risk for Saenz-Rico, who has Type 2 diabetes.

As an alternative, Dr. Solomon prescribed CellCept, a drug that suppresses the immune system and is often used to prevent organ rejection in transplant patients. For Saenz-Rico it played a different role. The medication decreases the number of lymphocytes, infection-fighting white blood cells that also can inflame the lungs, Dr. Solomon explained. Fewer lymphocytes give the lungs a chance to heal without the side effects of steroids.

The treatment wasn’t a random try. Dr. Solomon co-authored a paper in 2013 on the successful use of the medication to treat patients with connective tissue damage in the lungs.

“CellCept had been successful in treating lung disease before,” Dr. Solomon said. “COVID is unique, but there are a lot of things that COVID causes that we are really good at treating, so let’s apply them.”

For example, the high-flow oxygen technique that helped Saenz-Rico recover from COVID has long been used to assist patients suffering from acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS).

On the Road Back

Saenz-Rico’s lungs are permanently scarred from his illness. However, treatments improved his lung function, which now stands between 75% and 80%, up significantly from 60% when he left the hospital.

Saenz-Rico still relies on oxygen, has to be careful to maintain his balance and takes great precautions to avoid reinfection. He is fully vaccinated, works remotely on his real estate business, always wears an N95 mask when he is out, avoids crowds and with Beatriz’s help makes sure he has a sterile environment.

“My wife is my right arm and is all the help I need to keep people from getting too close,” Saenz-Rico said.

He is grateful for the care he received from Saint Joe’s and National Jewish Health and hopes to return to work at the TSA after his lung test in June 2022.

“The care I received was excellent,” Saenz-Rico said. “I was at the right place at the right time. It was a team effort,” he added, singling out his internal medicine specialist, Alex Michael Hodson, MD, and, of course, Dr. Solomon.

“I was very lucky to see Dr. Solomon from the very beginning,” Saenz-Rico said. “I wouldn’t have made it without his knowledge of lung disease.”

For his part, Dr. Solomon emphasized the importance of the continuity of care and ready access provided at Saint Joe’s and National Jewish Health to patients like Jorge Saenz-Rico. Seeing a familiar face helps patients, Dr. Solomon added.

Dr. Solomon said he sees patients both in the hospital and in his outpatient clinic at National Jewish Health. “That’s important because it builds rapport at all stages of illness,” he said.