MIDDLEBURG, Va. — For Tom Sweitzer, music is a part of his personal and professional life.
“I'm a certified music therapist,” he said.
Sweitzer co-founded “A Place To Be,” a nonprofit in Virginia that provides music therapy.
“I knew music therapy helped people with any neurological challenge - Parkinson's, traumatic brain injury, stroke,” he said.
In 2020, though, Sweitzer had no idea his music therapy background would end up helping him.
“I was having trouble breathing,” he said. “And I take care of myself: I work out, [I’m] a singer, but I knew something was different, that it wasn't a cold.”
Sweitzer was hospitalized in July 2020 with full-blown COVID and struggled to breathe.
“I was scared to death,” he said. “And, you know, I do go back in time and know, at that moment, those hours right there, that I made some deals with God.”
Hospitalized for a week, he was put on oxygen and nearly ended up on a ventilator. When he finally made it home, however, he realized something still wasn’t right.
“Months went by, and the exhaustion still lingered,” he said, “but more than that, for me, my brain was different.”
He was diagnosed with long COVID: one of the tens of millions of people who survived the virus but struggled with various lingering symptoms months and years later.
Researchers are still trying to figure out why that is happening. There is no cure yet.
So, Sweitzer turned to what he knew best – music.
“I was going through so many things that I do with my clients or my patients I work with,” he said. “And so I tried to give myself as a music therapist, I tried to give myself music therapy.”
He found it worked.
So, he decided to share that with other long COVID survivors by starting weekly online music therapy sessions via Zoom. During the session, survivors described what long COVID is like.
“My brain feels worse,” said Toni Pokin, of how she feels since first contracting the virus.
“This rollercoaster is just awful,” added Bairbre Colley. “I want my life back.”
Sweitzer guides them through breathing exercises and other therapy he uses day-to-day.
“I knew that that was something that I could offer in a clinical, science-evidence-based way that not a lot of people would know how to use,” he said. “I know that other music therapists are doing the work out there for long, COVID.”
For Sweitzer, though, it’s his personal experience that keeps driving him to help fellow survivors.
“I'm lucky compared to what I see and what I hear every Wednesday night,” he said. “I'm a music therapist supplying them clinical music therapy. But the truth is, it's just about validating what you're feeling, so you don't feel alone.”
It is all in the hopes that they can overcome it together.