Within minutes of her arrival at Community North Hospital in Indianapolis, Ramya Yeleti’s vital signs plummeted; her pulse was at 45 beats per minute and her ejection fraction was hovering near 10%. “I definitely thought there was a chance I would close my eyes and never open them again, but I only had a few seconds to process that,” she recalled. Then everything went black. Ramya fell unconscious as shock pads were positioned and a swarm of clinicians prepared to insert an Impella heart pump through a catheter into her aorta.
The third-year medical student and aspiring psychiatrist had been doing in-person neurology rotations in July when she began to experience fever and uncontrolled vomiting. Her initial thought was that she must have caught the flu from a patient.
After all, Ramya, along with her father Ram Yeleti, MD, mother Indira, and twin sister Divya, had all weathered COVID-19 in previous months and later tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 antibodies. The only family member who had been spared was her younger brother Rohith.
Indira suffered a severe case, requiring ICU care for 2 days but no ventilator; the others experienced mostly mild symptoms. Ramya — who was studying for her third-year board exams after classes at Marian University College of Osteopathic Medicine in Indianapolis went virtual in March — was left with lingering fatigue; however, her cough and muscle aches abated and her sense of taste and smell returned. When she started rotations, she thought her life was getting back to normal.
Ramya’ssymptoms did not improve. A university-mandated rapid COVID test came back negative, but 2 more days of vomiting started to worry both her and her father, who is a cardiologist and chief physician executive at Community Health Network in Indianapolis. After Ramya felt some chest pain, she asked her father to listen to her heart. All sounded normal, and Ram prescribed for her nausea.
But the antiemetic didn’t work, and by the next morning both father and daughter were convinced that they needed to head to the emergency department.
“I wanted to double-check if I was missing something about her being dehydrated,” Ram told Medscape Medical News. “Several things can cause protracted nausea, like, , or another infection. I feel terribly guilty I didn’t realize she had a heart condition.”
A surprising turn for the worst
Ramya’s subtle symptoms quickly gave way to the dramatic cardiac crisis that unfolded just after her arrival at Community North. “Herlooked absolutely horrendous, like a 75-year-old having a heart attack,” Ram said.
As a cardiologist, he knew his daughter’s situation was growing dire when he heard physicians shouting that the Impella wasn’t working and she needed extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO).
“At that point, I didn’t think she’d survive,” her father recalled. “We had 10 physicians in the room who worked on her for 5 hours to get her stabilized.”
“It was especially traumatic because, obviously, I knew exactly what was happening,” he added. “You can’t sugarcoat anything.”
After being connected to the heart–lung equipment, Ramya was transferred to IU Health Methodist Hospital, also in Indianapolis, where she was tested again for COVID-19. Unlike the rapid test administered just days earlier, the PCR assay came back positive.
“I knew she had acute, but coronavirus never crossed my mind,” said Ram.
“As we were dealing with her heart, we were also dealing with this challenge: she was coming back positive for COVID-19 again,” said Roopa Rao, MD, thetransplant cardiologist at IU Health who treated Ramya.
“We weren’t sure whether we were dealing with an active infection or dead virus” from her previous infection, Rao said, “so we started treating her like she had active COVID-19 and gave her remdesivir, convalescent plasma, and steroids, which was the protocol in our hospital.”
A biopsy of Ramya’s heart tissue, along with blood tests, indicated a past parvovirus infection. It’s possible that Ramya’s previous coronavirus infection made her susceptible to heart damage from a newer parvovirus infection, said Rao. Either virus, or both together, could have been responsible for the calamity.
Although it was unheard of during Ramya’s cardiac crisis in early August, evolving evidence now raises the possibility that she is one of aof people in the world to be reinfected with SARS-CoV-2. Also emerging are cases of COVID-related and other extreme heart complications, particularly in young people.
“At the time, it wasn’t really clear if people could have another infection so quickly,” Rao told Medscape Medical News. “It is possible she is one of these rare individuals to have COVID-19 twice. I’m hoping at some point we will have some clarity.”
“I would favor a coinfection as probably the triggering factor for her sickness,” she said. “It may take some time, but like any other disease — and it doesn’t look like COVID will go away magically — I hope we’ll have some answers down the road.”