Melissa Vanier, a 52-year-old postal worker from Vancouver, had just returned from holiday in Cuba when she fell seriously ill with COVID-19. “For the entire month of March I felt like I had broken glass in my throat,” she says, describing a range of symptoms that included fever, migraines, extreme fatigue, memory loss and brain fog. “I had to sleep on my stomach because otherwise it felt like someone was strangling me.”
By the third week of March, Vanier had tested negative for Sars-CoV-2 – the virus that causes Covid-19. But although the virus had left her body, this would prove to be just the beginning of her problems. In May, she noticed from her Fitbit that her heart rate appeared to be highly abnormal. When cardiologists conducted a nuclear stress test – a diagnostic tool that measures the blood flow to the heart – it showed she had ischaemic heart disease, meaning that the heart was not getting sufficient blood and oxygen.
Similar stories illustrate a wider trend – that the coronavirus can leave patients with lasting heart damage long after the initial symptoms have dissipated.
Cardiologists are still trying to find out exactly why some people are left with enduring heart problems despite having had an apparently mild bout of COVID-19. The underlying mechanisms are thought to be slow and subtle changes that are quite different to those that put strain on the heart during the acute illness, especially in patients who have been hospitalised with the disease.
Some cardiologists have suggested that treatments such as cholesterol-lowering drugs, aspirin or beta blockers may help patients with lingering cardiovascular effects many weeks or months after the initial infection, but the evidence remains limited.
“It is too early to share data on this,” says Mitrani. “But these therapies have proven efficacy in other inflammatory heart muscle diseases. They have anti-inflammatory effects and we believe may help counter some of the lingering pro-inflammatory effects from Covid-19.”
But for patients such as Vanier, there remains a long and uncertain road to see whether her heart does fully recover from the impact of the virus. “Psychologically this has been brutal,” she says. “I haven’t been back to work since I went on holiday in February. The heart hasn’t improved, and I now have to wait for more tests to see if they can find out more.”
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Source: The Guardian, 4 October 2020