When 18-year-old athlete Lauren Bull learned that her mild case of COVID-19 had damaged her heart, she was determined to get her health back. She shares her story.
Many people who contract COVID-19 will fully recover and return to normal health. But as the pandemic continues, we’re learning that some people can experience long-term effects from the virus — with symptoms lasting anywhere from weeks to months after recovery.
Lauren Bull, freshman nursing major and athlete on the women’s soccer team at Bloomsburg University, is one of them.
Testing positive for COVID-19 and isolating
In August, Ms. Bull began her freshman year of college as normally as she could — moving into her dorm, attending online classes and staying in shape for soccer.
But when she learned she had been exposed to COVID-19, she got tested right away.
“I didn’t have any symptoms then, but I tested positive,” Ms. Bull says. “After I was diagnosed, I was told I needed to isolate for 14 days to avoid getting others sick.”
To prevent spreading the illness to her parents and siblings, she decided to isolate at the university. “It was really hard (mentally and physically) to be isolated for two weeks, but I stayed connected with my family and friends through phone and video calls.”
While isolated, Ms. Bull kept in touch with the university’s health center daily to report her symptoms. First, she lost her sense of taste and smell. Then came fatigue, a racing heartbeat, headaches and cold symptoms. She never got a fever.
Despite feeling unwell, her case was mild. “Once isolation was over, I felt ready to ease back into soccer,” Ms. Bull says. “But when I tried running, I felt pain and tightness in my chest, and it was difficult to breathe.”
That’s when her sports medicine doctor, Ryan Roza, MD, referred Ms. Bull to cardiologist Arsalan Rafiq, MD, for further evaluation.
An imaging test reveals myocarditis
While we know that COVID-19 affects the lungs, scientists are learning that it can affect other organs in the body, too. In Ms. Bull’s case, it was her heart.
COVID-19 can cause myocarditis, a condition marked by inflammation of the heart muscle. Symptoms often include chest pain, abnormal heartbeat (arrhythmia) and shortness of breath. And if left untreated, it can cause permanent damage to your heart muscle and lead to serious health concerns.
“After my cardiologist performed a cardiac MRI, I learned I had myocarditis,” Ms. Bull says. “I was shocked and scared.”
To recover from her post-COVID myocarditis, she would have to do 3 months of rehab — working closely with the sports medicine team, the trainers at Bloomsburg University and her cardiologist — to make sure she was getting herself (and her heart) back in shape safely.
“Dr. Rafiq explained what was happening and reassured me that I would be okay,” Ms. Bull says. “It made me feel so much better.”
Getting her health back after COVID-19
Today, she is about halfway through her rehab program. It started with shorter, less strenuous exercises, like riding a stationary bike and walking on the treadmill for 15 minutes, and slowly progressed to agility exercises and jogging. She wears a device on her finger that monitors her heart rate.
“I’m at about 90 percent intensity in my workouts now and I’m feeling much better,” Ms. Bull says. “My trainers work with my cardiologist to make sure I’m progressing safely.”
In fact, she’s doing so well that her cardiologist recently cleared her to start weight training again. And in a little over a month, she’ll be cleared to play soccer again — something she’s looking forward to after her experience.
It can happen to anyone
Getting COVID-19 and myocarditis has proven to be an eye-opening experience for Ms. Bull.
When COVID-19 hit our area, I thought, ‘I’m young and healthy, I won’t get it. But then I did, and it really opened my eyes. If it can happen to me, it can happen to anyone.”
— Lauren Bull,18-year-old athlete
Her hope? That everyone will take the virus more seriously.
“Even if you’re not worried about how it’ll affect you, think about how it might affect others,” Ms. Bull says. “Wearing a mask is such an easy thing to do to protect yourself and others.”