While COVID-19 Took Over The World, I Was Having My Own Health Crisis

by Jeremy

Last fall, I sat on the patio of my childhood home in Arlington, Virginia, with my parents, enjoying the cooler temperature at dusk while we sipped gin and tonics. I was having a drink with my parents at home on a Tuesday night just like I did ten years ago when I was 23 and struggling to figure out my next move after college.  I’m not the only 30-something who went home for quarantine. But I didn’t go because I wanted to ― I went because I had to. 

Before COVID-19 took off, I was struggling with my own health crisis in Los Angeles. I was in advanced heart failure. I couldn’t walk short distances without having to take deep breaths that led to tightness in my chest so constricting that it felt like being strangled by an invisible corset. I would return home from one or two errands beyond fatigued, curling up in the fetal position until the tightness subsided, sometimes more than 30 minutes. 

I had been through something similar three years prior. I had a hole between my aorta and right ventricle leaking blood that caused similar symptoms. But this was different. I had new signs, and they were worse: tightness in my chest, loss of appetite ― I went from being excited about my next meal to eating because I knew I should pay for energy ― and extreme fatigue that eventually reached the point where I no longer had the strength to drive or leave my apartment.

2020 was miserable and it was barely February. 

It turns out I had another hole in my aorta, but the same quick patch job that worked in 2017 did not work in 2020. Initially, I felt so much better that I accepted a last-minute invitation for the Magic Castle (a members-only magic club) just two days after the minimally invasive cardiac procedure to close the hole. But a week after a night of magic and medium-rare filet, I found myself unable to enjoy a steak dinner at a nice restaurant in my Koreatown neighborhood to celebrate my sixth anniversary of living in LA and living with my roommate. 

My aorta was tearing again, and the only way to fix it now was open-heart surgery. 

I don’t have the kind of heart disease known as the No. 1 killer of men and women. I have congenital heart disease, the type present at birth, the type that can’t be “fixed,” and so it continually threatens to upend my life with an arrhythmia or leaky valve when I least expect it.

My heart problems, much like a volcano, would occasionally go dormant, but they never really stopped being active. A life with complex congenital heart disease is ― how do I put this? ― a pain in the ass.  As the coronavirus was ramping up, I was consumed with my respiratory struggles in my hospital room, ignorant to the growing pandemic outside. On the day of my surgery, March 18, UCLA Medical Center, my hospital, stopped allowing visitors.

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