COVID Nearly Killed Me

Photo by Jonathan J. Castellon/Unsplash.

Rabbi Jeremy Kridel

I had COVID and a heart attack. To be more specific, I had COVID, and it gave me a heart attack.

I had a few blockages in arteries that feed the heart, but these blockages were old, and had never affected my ability to do anything. None were primed to cause any difficulty. COVID’s inflammatory process managed to take care of that; part of a plaque traveled to the left anterior descending (LAD) artery and created a blockage.

A heart attack caused by a LAD blockage is sometimes called a “widow maker.” This is the type of heart attack that killed Tim Russert, moderator of “Meet the Press,” in 2008.

What was it like? Elevated temperature, sweating, headache, coughing, soreness in my shoulders and back (body aches) and fatigue — COVID symptoms. And when the heart attack began, I concluded that I was having a rebound of COVID symptoms, which happens pretty frequently.

The one exceptional symptom? My elbows — both of them — hurt. I have cubital tunnel syndrome in both of my elbows, and the pain I was having during the attack felt the same as the cubital tunnel pain feels. So, I decided that I probably was having a COVID rebound and had been using my iPad too much.

None of this felt like a heart attack. And so it went on for two days. It was only when I woke up on Sunday at 2 a.m. in a cold sweat with my heart racing that I thought something else might be going on. I couldn’t get our pulse oximeter to read a pulse, but the waveform on its display was weirdly irregular. When I felt for my pulse, it was very weird: a strong beat, a bunch of weak beats, then no beats. When beats came, they were too rapid for me to count reliably. Little did I know that atrial fibrillation was to blame, and that my heart’s atria were beating eight times faster than the ventricles.

I woke up my wife, Raya, and told her that she needed to call 911 because something was wrong with my heart rate. I packed a tote bag with my small number of medications, an iPhone charger and headphones, and met the ambulance as it pulled up.

I want to emphasize here: To me, my heart attack started on Sunday. In reality, it started two days before. I am shocked, frankly, that I’m alive right now.

After his colleagues stopped the heart attack and placed a stent — saved my life on a regular Sunday after Thanksgiving — the attending cardiologist made it clear that this heart attack wouldn’t have happened without COVID’s inflammatory process.

In an 8:30 a.m. appointment the day after I got out of the hospital, my new cardiologist, Dr. Zhang, didn’t even start by introducing himself. He opened the exam room’s door and started: “So, you had a COVID heart attack! Sure, you have those old blockages, and we’re going to deal those, but they weren’t bothering you without COVID.”

And so I’m still here: 12 prescriptions, tired, easily winded by running even a brief errand, and with a new trauma trigger or two, but still here. (Adenosine was used four times to try to get my heart rate regularized. It didn’t work, but it sure felt like I was dying the first time I got a dose of it.) I won’t need bypass surgery tomorrow — perhaps in a few months, pending time for my heart to reach whatever its new normal will be and a nuclear stress test to see just how bad those old blockages really are.

So why am I telling you all of this? I could say, “Well, you should know that some heart attacks won’t seem like heart attacks when they happen,” and that’s true. But you know that. I knew it, and I was sure it was just COVID. And I could tell you to be diligent about your heart’s health: push your doctor to not remain satisfied with cholesterol and triglyceride test results that are outside normal bounds, even by a little bit. And doing that might have made my older blockages smaller, but that wouldn’t necessarily have prevented this heart attack.

That would all be good advice. But it’s not really the point.

The point is this: We continually underestimate the full danger of COVID-19. I had received my bivalent booster less than a month before I got COVID. I got COVID at an event where I wore a KN95 mask almost all the time, but you can’t predict superspreader events. “I’m boosted and I’m relatively young. I don’t want to get sick, but I’ll be fine.”

And I wasn’t fine. Neither were thousands of people in their 20s, 30s and early 40s: Their heart attack deaths spike along with spikes in COVID infections, but they’re not always — or often — recognized as COVID deaths.

We focus on deaths and miss out on the permanent injuries that COVID causes, injuries that aren’t even reliably attributed to COVID infections. We do this at our peril. The most frustrating moment of two days in an ICU’s COVID isolation room? Seeing a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services ad trumpeting that people are getting together again, and you can do it safely, too — if you get your bivalent booster!

We know COVID isn’t just a bad flu, and we are thankful for our vaccinations when we make it through COVID infections. But it’s not “vaccine + COVID = a bad flu” or “no vaccine + COVID = death.”

In my case, it was very nearly “vaccine + precautions + COVID = death.”

I don’t know how to do it — and maybe we’re just culturally too far gone now as a country to really correct course, chained to the need to “get back to work” — but even in our one-to-one relationships, we have to work to redefine how people understand the real risks of COVID. Because I did it right, and COVID damn near killed me. ■

Rabbi Jeremy Kridel leads Machar: The Secular Humanistic Jewish Congregation of Greater Washington. This article originally appeared in the synagogue’s January-February newsletter.

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