The Morning Call
I contracted COVID-19 and it damaged my heart
I got the call on a Tuesday that my COVID-19 test came back positive, and my mind raced to two places: my kids and my heart.
My kids because I feared they, too, were infected. (How could they not be? I work from home, they school from home.)
My heart because I already have a heart condition brought on by a virus. I had viral meningitis in 2011 and, a cardiologist surmised, mybody sent fluid to my organs to protect them. The sac of fluid near my heart never reabsorbed, so I live with a pericardial effusion that has neither shrunk nor grown in the past nine years. It’s a minor inconvenience, but a nagging reminder that viruses can do unexpected, lasting damage to your organs.
The positive test was a shock. We’ve avoided crowds and restaurants and we always wear masks when we leave the house. My daughter and I got tested together because we planned to host three of her friends from school for a birthday celebration, on the condition that her friends got tested and we got tested. Neither of us had symptoms.
Her test came back negative, but I worried it was false — that her viral load hadn’t reached a detectable level yet. I assumed my son, whowas getting tested the next day, would also be positive. I assumed my husband, who was tested the day after my daughter and I were, was also infected.
But those tests, and two subsequent rounds, were all negative.
So I isolated in a spare bedroom, donning a mask and covering my hands in newspaper bags when I needed to emerge. My symptoms grew a little worse each day. My whole body ached. My head throbbed and my eyeballs pulsated. I would lose my train of thought mid-sentence and forget simple words.
“This virus can hang out in my brain for a while,” I texted a friend. “As long as it stays clear of my heart.”
I ordered a pulse oximeter to keep an eye on my heart rate and oxygen levels, and I took comfort in their steady levels.
Nine days after my positive test, the symptoms started to lift. Someone from the Chicago Department of Public Health called to ask how I was feeling and help me contact trace. She said I was cleared to come out of isolation on day 10. To be safe, she said, I should get re-tested 14 days after my initial positive test to make sure I was truly clear of the virus.
The morning I was scheduled to be sprung, I woke up feeling the worst I’d yet felt. My headache was severe. I was too dizzy to sit upright. I spent the day lying flat.
I woke up the following day feeling worse. I couldn’t stand or walk without leaning my back against the wall and inching my way toward the bathroom. I called my primary care physician, who directed me to the emergency room.
After an initial triage and electrocardiogram, I was given a blood test for COVID-19 markers. One protein that doctors check for is troponin, which tells them the virus has damaged your heart. Mytroponin levels were more than three times the healthy limit. They checked again in a few hours to see if they’d gone down. They’d gone up.
COVID-19, the ER doctor explained, goes wherever your blood vessels go. And your blood vessels, of course, go everywhere.
The cardiac injury was enough to get me admitted, but it didn’t necessarily explain the headaches and dizziness. The doctor suggested a lumbar puncture, since hospitals have been seeing the coronavirus cause viral meningitis in some patients.
The spinal tap was inconclusive. I had the proteins that indicate meningitis, but not the white blood cells. I was moved to a room in the COVID-19 unit, where I saw a series of doctors for the next three days.
I was given blood thinner shots in my upper arms to prevent a stroke. A nurse drew myblood every four hours to check my troponin levels. I had another EKG and an ultrasound of my heart. I had a CTscan and MRIof my brain. The MRI took place at 1:30 a.m. because that’s when there was an opening.
I went home the next day. My troponin levels were starting to decrease and a neurologist gave me the all-clear. I was ordered to rest and avoid stress as much as possible.
The next eight days at home I had to wrap ice packs around my head and secure them in place with a stocking cap to dull the headaches. I didn’t move much from the couch. Slowly I started to add activities back — walks with my family, card games at our kitchen table. I had a follow-up MRI of my heart to check for myocarditis and none was detected, meaning the cardiac injury is likely acute, rather than chronic. I feel pretty good now, seven weeks after I was diagnosed.
I am lucky.
And I’m scared — about how many more infections, hospitalizations, deaths lie ahead of us, about spikes across the country, about folks gathering for Thanksgiving.