LOMA LINDA, Calif. — A mother, wife and nurse for more than three decades, Regina Juarez has multi-tasked her way through life.
She says her home is always full.
"It's full of grandchildren and love. I have seven grandchildren and two great-grandchildren," Juarez said. "Until I got sick, I could outdo every one of my grandchildren, and they range from 3 to 24."
Working as a home nurse early in the pandemic, she contracted COVID-19 nearly two years ago.
"It was like a relapse. Within two weeks, I was back to being not able to breathe again and my oxygen levels dropping low," Juarez said.
She's among COVID-19 long-haulers with lingering heart problems. The CDC says people can experience a range of new or ongoing symptoms lasting weeks or months after first being infected with the virus.
From boogie-boarding to giving piggyback rides, Juarez can no longer do some of her favorite things.
“I can’t pick them up. I do it, but I very quickly have to put them down," Juarez said. "My body just gets suddenly exhausted and fatigued, and I feel tightness in my chest. So, that really, really breaks my heart."
She's now receiving care at the COVID-19 Heart Clinic at Loma Linda University International Heart Institute.
"I tell my patients that this can be their wake-up call," said Purvi Parwani, MD, a cardiologist and assistant professor of medicine at Loma Linda University Health.
Parwani is among a team of specialists managing Juarez's symptoms. She says they're seeing cardiovascular damage in both patients with severe COVID-19 symptoms and those with mild to no symptoms at all.
"I have patients, young women, who unfortunately had a completely normal life before, and now they have heart failure," Parwani said.
She says the virus can damage heart tissue and cause inflammation. Patients often experience chest pain, chest tightness, shortness of breath and irregular heartbeats.
Neither an echocardiogram nor stress test revealed any significant abnormalities in Juarez's case. She then underwent a cardiac MRI, which revealed the presence of fluid around the heart.
"I think partly the problem is that most of the diagnostic tools that we have out there may not be able to pick up the microscopic damage that may go on after this virus infects our body," Parwani said.
"I was really scared to even walk around outside because of the chest pain," Juarez said. "Was it dangerous? And was it going to take my life?"
After undergoing cardiac rehab, Juarez gained the confidence to resume activities like walking.
“She was able to get my heart stabilized, lower the chest pain and shortness of breath," Juarez said.
Her team of specialists also includes a pulmonologist, cardiologist and neurologist.
“There is not much data out there," Parwani said. "So, it’s kind of physicians trying to figure it out."
Research at long COVID clinics could help improve treatment for a range of debilitating conditions.
"Ten years down the road, what are we going to see in these patients? We do not know, and that's what we're trying to understand," Parwani said. “The silver lining in all of this is most of the patients with long haul COVID recover. Their recovery time may vary from six months to one year.”
Parwani also encourages patients to practice meditation and breathing exercises to manage stress and high blood pressure.
For those hesitant to get the vaccine, health officials say the known risks associated with COVID-19 far outweigh the potential risks of having a rare adverse reaction to the vaccine.
“You have to see your doctor and you have to be an advocate for yourself," Juarez said.
While she is still on the road to recovery, Juarez looks forward to the day she can return to nursing.
“I try to grab onto all the blessings," Juarez said. "I'm still here. I can still walk and talk and love my family."