North Texas man still dealing with lung damage one year after contracting COVID-19

One of the first people in North Texas to contract COVID-19 is still dealing with the ramifications of the disease one year later.  He's sharing his story now to raise awareness about the long-term effects of the disease.

Experts at a Baylor Scott and White rehabilitation center say they are seeing a lot of recovered COVID patients in a similar state as those with lung disease. The good news is there are things that can be done to regain a better quality of life.

Tommy Gillis came down with COVID-19 in early March last year after a trip to Florida. What began as a runny nose for then healthy 54-year-old quickly turned into a life-changing ordeal.

"Monday went to work fine. Tuesday, no problems. Then Tuesday after, it hit me like a ton of bricks. Flu-like symptoms," he said.

Gillis was in Mansfield Methodist Hospital for 14 days. But even after that, he was far from being back to normal.

"Before that, I had a healthy, normal lifestyle. On the treadmill for 2-3 miles. Playing golf 2-3 times a week," he said.

Brittany Womack, a clinical exercise physiologist, says Gillis was her first post-COVID patient. She says the lung damage was similar to someone with lung disease.

"Shortness of breath. Decrease in ability to do normal activities," she said.

Thanks to breathing techniques and rehabilitation therapy at Baylor Scott and White All Saints Medical Center in Fort Worth, Gillis is much better than he was.

"One of the biggest challenges was breathing retraining and learning how to breathe during certain activities," Womack said.

Now more than a year later, Gillis is still dealing with the damage to his lungs.

"I can walk now a mile and a half without oxygen. Not a fast walk," he said. "I now have periods now of a chronic cough."

It's one more reason Gillis hopes people will be willing to get whatever vaccine they can to protect themselves from a disease that can do lasting damage, even to the healthy.

"If there is anyone out there who doesn’t take COVID seriously, I can tell you it almost took my life. And has really handicapped me now for the rest of my life."

Experts recommend that people who are experiencing breathing issues after having COVID ask their doctor about seeing a pulmonologist.