PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — A Pittsburgh fitness instructor who survived COVID-19 saw the virus resurface months later. Doctors say the virus attacked Derek Stipetich’s heart and the only way to save him was to give him a new one.
Stipetich thrived on extreme adventures, skiing and living to the fullest. He slowed down a bit when he was diagnosed with COVID-19 last November, but described his symptoms as mild. Later, her family grew concerned when persistent symptoms progressed.
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“The weights I used regularly were too heavy for me,” Stipetich said.
It was in January. The doctors told him he was in good health. But in April, Stipetich caught a cold and couldn’t sleep. “I would wake up and feel like I was suffocating,” Stipetich said.
His family urged him to go to the hospital, thinking he might have COVID-19 again. It turned out that Stipetich was very ill and in cardiogenic shock. “During all these tests they came back and said there was nothing more they could do for me,” he said.
The news became more terrifying when Stipetich discovered that his kidneys and liver were failing, as was his heart. “His heart had caved in to such an extent that he needed his life sustained by a mechanical heart pump,” said Dr. Azam Hadi, a heart failure cardiologist at the Allegheny Health Network. Hadi was part of Stipetich’s team at AGH.
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“We were able to reverse his shock process to a point where he recovered his organs except his heart,” Hadi added.
Stipetich and his family would learn that he needed a transplant. After eight days of having her heart pumped artificially, a donor heart arrived. Dr Hadi said he saw many heart problems related to COVID-19, including death, but this was a first.
Doctors believe the virus lay dormant in Stipetich’s body. “The dormant virus continued to cause inflammation in the heart. And the inflammation, in turn, weakens the heart, scarring it and preventing it from pumping,” Dr. Hadi said.
The recovery was not easy. Stipetich’s strong body took another hit, as his mobility was affected.
But now, for several months, Stipetich has been gaining energy. And while extreme sports and weightlifting may not be part of his future, Stipetich and his family have a new purpose.
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A business Stipetich started before his medical ordeal called Pumping Adrenaline Beating All Odds has been transformed into a non-profit organization to benefit heart transplant recipients, especially those associated with COVID-19.