THE VILLAGES, Fla. — New data shows that one in every five people who’ve had COVID-19 are still suffering from lingering symptoms. It’s a phenomenon more commonly referred to as long COVID.
As doctors try to identify the cause, the Aviv Clinic in The Villages is having success with treatments using hyperbaric chambers. It’s old technology but with a new scientific protocol that pushes the human body to heal itself.
It’s been life-changing for patients like Danielle Gillan, who had been suffering with long COVID for more than two years.
“I didn’t know what was happening to me,” Gillan said. “I wasn’t really aware of where I was in time and space.”
Gillan says it was like living a nightmare. Her symptoms were debilitating.
“Short-term memory loss. Getting lost in my house. It was hard for me to walk. It was hard for me to talk. I stuttered. I couldn’t see,” she said.
Gillan’s symptoms got so bad she went to an emergency room thinking she was having a heart attack. It’s there she learned about the Aviv Clinic.
“If it weren’t for that, like, for this whole complete process, I don’t know,” she said.
The clinic in The Villages is one of three Aviv centers in the world using multi-patient hyperbaric chambers to treat long COVID with a specialized protocol that regulates oxygen levels to help the body fix itself.
“By doing this protocol, we can actually trigger new neuronal stem cell growth. New brain cells. And, more importantly, we have the technology to measure it,” said Dr. Mohammed Elamir, who heads the Avid Clinic.
First, by looking at images of the brain, they can determine which areas have been affected by long COVID.
“So, we can actually see this part of the frontal lobe, for example, that got hit by the virus, it is not functioning as well. And if parts of your brain aren’t functioning — that as well can lead to brain fog, or memory problems, attention issues,” Elamir said. “Processing speeds slowing. So, we have objective ways to measure that and with all of our patients we are able to do that.”
Patients are then given a series of targeted brain exercises to perform during their treatment in the hyperbaric chamber; 40 sessions over the course of two months.
“Patient number one could have memory exercises. Patient number two could have attention exercises. Patient number three could have an issue with processing speeds,” Elamir said. “So, they'll do games to really help them improve it and trigger those parts of the brain that need help.”
“While I am playing that brain HQ, my brain is saying feed me, feed me, feed me,” Gillan said. “And then you are slowly, but surely, rebuilding all of those neurological connections.”
What happens in the hyperbaric chamber then takes advantage of a scientific breakthrough that won the Nobel Prize for physiology in 2019.
“That is the key to this protocol,” Elamir said. “In 2019 a Nobel prize was awarded for a molecule called hypoxia-induced factor. And this factor gets released when the body senses of low oxygen state. Because in low oxygen, the body knows my cells will die. So, I need to replace them. It needs to make new stem cells. It needs to grow new blood vessels to help usher blood to the organs that might be starving.”
During treatment, pressure in the hyperbaric chamber is increased by two atmospheres. Patients inside breathe an air mixture with oxygen levels 17 times higher than normal. They then remove their masks at specific intervals to breathe normal air.
But that sudden fluctuation fools the brain into thinking it’s suffocating. And that, a pair of studies showed, triggers something called neurogenesis — a defense mechanism that spurs the production of new vessels and stem cells.
“The body has amazing ways to help heal itself, but we need to convince it to do it,” Elamir said. “And to trigger it, we need to trick it into thinking it’s in a low oxygen state. To go into repair mode.”
Potentially life-changing results
Those customized brain exercises then tell the body to direct that new cell growth where it’s needed the most.
“This is huge. This is the future,” Elamir said. “We want to address the causes of diseases, not just treating symptoms. So, we have the technology to do that. And what better way better use the body's mechanisms to heal and regenerate its own cells?”
For long COVID patients like Gillan, it has been life-changing. Brain scans show areas that had been damaged are functioning again.
“I’m not just recovering now. I’m rebuilding. And like, it’s the best place to be,” Gillan said. Thanks to the treatments, Gillan says she’s regained her memory and her mobility. But most importantly, she says, her children have their mom back.
“Experiencing their loss was my greatest loss,” Gillan said “And so, now, my wins — around what we get to do together and things that we have planned for the future, it’s like I’m ready.”
Currently, hyperbaric treatments are not covered by insurance, and the whole procedure can cost tens of thousands of dollars. But the Aviv Clinic says it works with people who they think could benefit.
Meanwhile, they continue to publish results and findings with the goal of getting the procedure covered by insurance plans.
The same hyperbaric chamber procedure is also being used to treat people who have suffered traumatic brain injuries and strokes.
“What better than making your own body have its own stem cells?” Elamir said. “And they will go to the area of need. This is the future to repair everything.”