Connie's story

patient success stories - medically complex - Connie Smith-Johnson

Constance (Connie) Smith-Johnson, 51, is always the life of the party when spending time with her large family – including her husband, four kids, and 15 grandkids. But in late May, she began having trouble walking, talking and breathing. A friend took her to UPMC Pinnacle Harrisburg to get checked out where she had a chest X-ray and also tested positive for COVID-19.

Connie’s condition quickly deteriorated resulting in her being placed on a ventilator with a tracheostomy, leading to a long stay in the hospital. During that time, Connie also experienced several other serious setbacks during her stay, including a collapsed lung, abnormal heartbeat, a blood clot and nerve damage in her left leg. After 11 weeks, Connie was stable enough to continue her recovery at an inpatient rehabilitation hospital. She chose Helen M. Simpson Rehabilitation Hospital.

Upon arrival, Connie was unable to walk, talk or take care of her basic needs. She began working with an interdisciplinary team to help achieve her goals of walking and becoming independent again, able to manage self-care tasks. She was motivated to return to her family as quickly as possible.

Physical therapists first focused on helping Connie transfer from one surface to another, such as a bed to a chair. Next, they worked on strengthening muscles with various exercises and standing tasks. She started with standing at a walker and learning to shift her weight. With enough repetition, she went from needing three people to help stand up to only one.  After that, Connie progressed to pivoting and finally taking her first steps in months. Her therapists also helped Connie navigate stairs in preparation for going home.

In occupational therapy, Connie practiced basic activities of daily living such as bathing, dressing, toileting and getting around to maximize independence. She also participated in strengthening and endurance training to increase her endurance and tolerance for certain activities.  Since one of Connie’s biggest goals was to independently take care of herself, she was thrilled when she could finally stand without holding on to anything to complete her "normal activities."

Connie’s tracheostomy had been removed before arriving at the rehabilitation hospital, however, she still had difficulty keeping oxygen levels up during activity. For that, therapists deployed exercises to improve lung capacity. They slowly weaned Connie off oxygen in the therapy sessions until it was no longer needed. Eventually, Connie’s levels greatly improved and she only needed supplemental oxygen at night.

Connie developed a true bond with her therapy team. “I always looked forward to having them come get me for therapy so I could surprise them with what I was able to do each day," said Connie. Although some days were harder than others, Connie realized she reached a turning point when she started smiling again and was given a discharge date of when she could return home.

When departing Helen M. Simpson, Connie used a rolling walker and was able to steadily walk 20-30 feet and couldn’t wait to see her grandchildren who constantly asked about her while she was in the hospital.