DULUTH — A bad cough prompted Lauren Gella, a cross-country and track athlete at the University of Minnesota Duluth, to get tested for the coronavirus Sept. 18.
When she received a positive test result a couple days later, Gella recalled thinking the two weeks of isolation would be the worst part. That wasn’t the case.
“I started getting really bad symptoms a week later: heart palpitations and shortness of breath. That’s when I was like, ‘This is really scary,’” Gella said. “When I kept having the lingering symptoms — I found out I couldn’t run and I couldn’t do physical activity — that was really hard on my mental health, just not knowing what was going on.”
Her symptoms, which also included fatigue, brain fog and loss of smell, lasted three weeks.
About seven weeks after her diagnosis, Gella received physician permission to start exercising lightly for the first time since becoming ill. Just a couple months ago, she was running 5-8 miles every day at a pace of about seven minutes and 40 seconds per mile. Now, she can barely run nine minutes without needing a break.
“I still don’t know if I’ll be able to get back to where I was,” Gella said. “I don’t know how long this is going to last or how long my heart is going to be crazy high when I’m just jogging.”
Gella, a 20-year-old from Stillwater, Minn., wishes more people knew how COVID-19 affected young people like herself, especially since that's who makes up the largest age bracket of those infected.
Despite the relatively low death rate among young people with COVID-19 — fewer than 0.01% of Minnesotans between ages 0 and 29 have died after becoming infected — even healthy young people can develop serious health complications. For Gella and many others, one of those side effects is “inappropriate tachycardia."
Katie Benziger, an Essentia Health cardiologist, said people with inappropriate tachycardia experience their heart rates taking off without anything to prompt it.
“It’s normal when you’re running a marathon or exercising, but it’s not normal when you’re just doing laundry or going to the bathroom,” she said.
While the coronavirus does not attack the heart, Benziger said an overwhelming immune response during the second phase of the infection can cause heart issues.
Additionally, heart scans have revealed that about one in three hospitalized patients have some heart muscle damage, Benziger said, citing national literature. She works with college athletes and said this has been the case in about 20% of those she and her colleague have checked. None of those athletes were ever hospitalized for COVID-19.
“We don't know what that's going to mean for them long term. Are they at higher risk of sudden death? Are they going to have problems with heart palpitations and arrhythmias? There’s just so much we don’t know about this disease,” Benziger said.
Gella's experience with COVID-19 has changed the way she views the pandemic. Before, she took precautions not because she was worried about how the virus would affect her health, but to avoid spreading it to others. Now she's thinking about what she's going to do when her COVID-19 antibodies begin to wane, meaning she could become ill again if infected.
"Physically, mentally, I don't want to go through that again," Gella said. "I am taking it a lot more seriously."
Things to know if you've had COVID-19
Those who develop chest pain or heart racing after recovering from the usual COVID-19 symptoms should visit their primary care doctor or a cardiologist, Benziger said. Treatment plans for the heart palpitations include high-salt diets, drinking plenty of fluids, wearing compression socks and occasionally, prescribing steroids as well as other medications in instances where the former plans don’t yield results.
Because little is known on how long these side effects from COVID-19 will last, Benziger urged people who have had the coronavirus to contribute to science by participating in surveys and research.
Those who have recovered are also encouraged to donate their plasma because the antibodies in their blood can help treat patients ill with COVID-19. The current supply of what’s called convalescent plasma will run out in January at the current rate it's being used, she said.
To donate your plasma, schedule an appointment at mbc.org/donate-blood/locations.