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COVID long hauler uses his gift as music therapist to aid other suffering long haulers

Tom Sweitzer at A Place to Be in Middleburg, VA. (Photo by Jay Korff/7News)
Tom Sweitzer at A Place to Be in Middleburg, VA. (Photo by Jay Korff/7News)
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Tom Sweitzer founded A Place to Be in Loudoun County, Virginia to heal hearts and minds through the restorative power of music therapy.

But this force for good recently faced the crisis of his life amid the pandemic.

Sweitzer said, “I’m healthy. I work out. I take care of myself. I was safe.”

Despite his best intentions, COVID-19 landed Sweitzer in the emergency room last summer.

“On the fourth day my breathing changed drastically,” said Sweitzer.

Pneumonia compromised his lungs so quickly he says doctors told him he was only hours away from being intubated. That’s when he made a bedside promise to himself, if God could just get him through the night. Sweitzer recorded some videos while he was hospitalized that he posted on social media for his friends and followers.

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In one of the videos he says, “I had a great talk with God last night. We have this thing figured out. I’m going to be fine. It’s going to take some time.”

In time, Sweitzer discovered he was a COVID-19 long hauler.

Sweitzer said, “This virus, this disease took over every part of my body not just my lungs.”

He forgot the names of dear friends, couldn’t recall simple words and phrases and had trouble retrieving fond memories. His brain fog remains a year later. In December he followed through on that bedside promise by starting a free, weekly music therapy session for fellow long haulers. He's worked, in the months since, with some 200 long haulers via therapy sessions over Zoom.

We were given permission to use some of these music therapy sessions for this story.

Participants told Tom and the others things such as, “It’s so weird. One day I’m ok and the next day I’m dragging and can barely get anything done.”

“2020 was like the hardest year of my entire life hands down. I feel like I almost died.”

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“I feel like damaged goods in a lot of ways.”

Tom told us during our interview, “People need to feel validated and I think that is the biggest gift that this group gives the long haulers every Wednesday.”

COVID-19 survivor Toni Popkin of Fairfax County cherishes each of Tom’s sessions.

“It just feels like this mountain is growing,” said Toni during a July session.

Popkin spent years, with the help of her service dog Bud, successfully recovering from traumatic brain injuries sustained in car accidents. Just prior to COVID-19 she was an award-winning volunteer, sat on high-profile service committees, and created art.

She tells us all the progress she made over the years in recovering from her TBIs was lost when she got COVID-19.

“It’s been incredibly hard because it’s turned my life upside down," said Popkin.

After COVID-19, old issues like high blood pressure and asthma roared back. She’s been hospitalized multiple times for pneumonia and her brain fog is so bad she can’t do math, multi-task or read for any length of time.

Popkin added, “And then there are some people who say just get over it already. And I’m like I wish I could.”

She looks forward to every one of Tom's long hauler weekly music therapy sessions.

“No matter how I’m feeling, how tired, how down or how whatever is going on, it’s always uplifting," Popkin told us.

Popkin is also improving thanks to the Post-COVID Recovery and Rehabilitation Center at Inova Loudoun. Here, occupational therapists like Laura Serine work diligently with patients like Toni to get them back to the life they once knew.

“We’re working on visual endurance as well as attention," said Serine.

Toni said to us during one of her occupational therapy sessions about what it's like to be a long hauler, “It’s a rollercoaster. That’s how I describe it. I’m on a roller coaster and I don’t like rollercoasters.”

Monika Stolze, Program Manager for the Inova Loudoun Hospital Outpatient Specialty Rehabilitation Center added, “I hear so frequently that people are physically better but they still have that cognitive fatigue. They have difficultly multi-tasking, problem-solving, and everyone just says you have to deal with it. It’s going to get better. It may not. You may need some additional help.”

It’s hard to know if the long and winding road of COVID will ever disappear. But for some, it sure helps when you can share the ride with a friend. As the months rolled on, many of Tom's participants noted that slowly, over time, they're feeling better.

“People tell me my color looks better.”

“I couldn’t have found a better group of people.”

“I want to let you know that every doctor tells me that singing and exercise is what’s going to help me so I have to just keep on singing.”

Tom told us, “We’re taking the broken part of ourselves which COVID has broken inside of us and we’re trying to put the pieces back together again and I think doing that as a group is so much more profound and effective.”

Thanks to that bedside promise, a weekly session Tom Sweitzer plans on continuing as he and a nation heal.

“I love you all and I will be here next Wednesday night. Thank you all and go listen to some music tonight," said Tom to his participants during a July music therapy session.

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