LOMA LINDA, California – Regina Juarez, who has been a mother, wife and nurse for more than three decades, has multi-tasked her way through life.
She says her home is always full.
“It’s full of grandchildren and love. I have seven grandchildren and two great-grandchildren,” Juarez said. “Until I got sick, I could surpass all my grandchildren, and they range from 3 to 24.”
When she worked as a home nurse early in the pandemic, she got COVID-19 almost two years ago.
“It was like a relapse. Within two weeks I was back to not being able to breathe again and my oxygen level dropped low,” Juarez said.
She is among COVID-19 long-distance transporters with persistent heart problems. The CDC says people may experience a range of new or persistent symptoms that last for weeks or months after first becoming infected with the virus.
From boogie boarding to giving piggyback rides, Juarez can no longer do some of his favorite things.
“I can not pick them up. I do, but I will very soon have to put them away from me,” Juarez said. “My body suddenly becomes exhausted and tired and I feel a pressure in my chest. So it really breaks my heart.”
She is now in treatment at COVID-19 Cardiac Clinic on Loma Linda University International Heart Institute.
“I tell my patients this may be their wake-up call,” said Purvi Parwani, MD, a cardiologist and assistant professor of medicine at Loma Linda University Health.
Parwani is among a team of specialists dealing with Juarez’s symptoms. She says they see cardiovascular damage in both patients with severe COVID-19 symptoms and those with mild to no symptoms at all.
“I have patients, young women, who unfortunately had a completely normal life before and now they have heart failure,” Parwani said.
She says the virus can damage heart tissue and cause inflammation. Patients often experience chest pain, chest tightness, shortness of breath and irregular heartbeat.
Neither an echocardiogram nor a stress test revealed any significant abnormalities in Juarez’s case. She then underwent a cardiac MRI, which revealed the presence of fluid around the heart.
“I think the problem in part is that most of the diagnostic tools we have out there may not be able to capture the microscopic damage that can happen after this virus has infected our body,” he said. Parwani.
“I was really scared to walk around outside at all because of the chest pain,” Juarez said. “Was it dangerous? And was it going to take my life?”
After undergoing cardiac rehabilitation, Juarez gained the confidence to resume activities such as walking.
“She was able to stabilize my heart, lower my chest pain and shortness of breath,” Juarez said.
Her team of specialists also includes a pulmonologist, cardiologist and neurologist.
“There’s not much data out there,” Parwani said. “So it’s a kind of doctor trying to figure it out.”
Research at long COVID clinics can help improve the treatment of a number of disabling conditions.
“Ten years later, what are we going to see in these patients? We do not know, and that is what we are trying to understand,” Parwani said. “The silver in all of this is most patients with long-distance COVID recovering. Their recovery time can range from six months to a year.”
Parwani also encourages patients to practice meditation and breathing exercises to deal with stress and high blood pressure.
For those who are hesitant to get the vaccine, health officials say that the known risks associated with COVID-19 far outweigh the potential risks of having a rare side effect of the vaccine.
“You have to see your doctor and you have to be a lawyer for yourself,” Juarez said.
While still on the road to recovery, Juarez is looking forward to the day she can return to nursing.
“I’m trying to seize all the blessings,” Juarez said. “I’m still here. I can still go and talk and love my family.”