The Morning Call

I con­tracted COVID-19 and it dam­aged my heart

- Heidi Stevens is a colum­nist for the Chicago Tri­bune. Health · Healthy Living · Department of Public Health, University of Copenhagen

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.

 ??  ?? Heidi Stevens
Heidi Stevens

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