The whir of erg wheels drowned out my coughing and my teammates cheering behind me. My vision went in and out as I struggled to maintain an average split I easily held just a month ago.
Slower than ever, I completed my 5k, collapsing into a coughing fit and clutching my chest. Between gasps, I managed to mutter to my coach, “I think something is really wrong.” My Christmas spent with Covid-19 last month ran through my head as a potential root of this problem. No, it couldn’t be—I am young and healthy. Yet no number of skipped workouts could explain such a rapid deterioration of my athletic abilities.
The following weeks, I missed several classes to visit Massachusetts General Hospital and reiterate my symptoms to countless specialists, who administered x-rays, stress tests, breathing evaluations, bloodwork, and an MRI. I am told to refrain from any physical exercise, a difficult adjustment from my eleven weekly practices.
The third doctor I saw finally gave me answers. Though my heart scan was clean, my breath tests showed that my oxygen efficiency is 60 percent of the normal levels. I felt like I was breathing through a straw and needed to take extra inhales to receive enough oxygen.
“Are you sure you didn’t have asthma before this?” the doctor asked.
“I’m sure,” I responded. How could I not know for my 21 years of life if I had asthma?
The doctor prescribed me a steroid inhaler to take twice a day and a regular inhaler to use before exercise to minimize the “obstructions” in my lungs that Covid-19 created. I was allowed to bike for ten minutes two weeks later, which sounded far more exciting to me than it should have. But the doctor was still not sure why I had sharp chest pain, which could not be explained by my breathing problems or any test results.
Now, eight months since having Covid-19, the feeling of a knife in my chest has not gone away. More doctors, more tests, and I do not have any answers.
I’m not alone. Division one athletes, a group of individuals in tip-top physical shape, never imagined they might experience long-Covid-19 themselves. This medical anomaly is primarily discussed in regard to people of older age or with weakened immunity. After all, college students seemingly put their bodies through much worse while drinking on a Saturday night.
But youth and physical fitness do not render athletes immune to the long-term challenges of Covid-19. Although only 4% of college athletes have developed long Covid-19 symptoms at this time, the consequences of the virus will continue to crystalize in coming years. One women’s lacrosse player left her team because her lungs were so damaged after catching the virus she could not run. Another quit because her heart rate randomly spikes and persistent migraines impact her vision. A lightweight men’s rower was put on the bench last spring as a result of myocarditis.
For Adam Dwyer ’23, contracting Covid-19 exacerbated his prolonged bronchitis symptoms. “I had an elevated heart rate and lung weakness during very basic physical exercise, and even walking up the stairs would skyrocket my heart rate to an alarming number,” he explained. Harvard’s sports medicine trainers and MGH doctors helped diagnose him with myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart and lung muscles. Dwyer took a medical leave of absence from the team last spring to focus on these issues, which ultimately forced him to exit the team during his senior year.
Away from the boathouse, “I no longer have an elevated heart rate and can return to moderate endurance and strength training,” Dwyer said.
Yet the road to rebuilding his fitness is a steep challenge. “In order to return to a level of performance that would make me a valued teammate, I would need to devote numerous hours outside of practice to training,” Dwyer said, explaining that a senior thesis and other extracurricular responsibilities would not allow for such a recovery. “It’s been a hard emotional realization that I would have to say goodbye to competitive rowing and a team I have loved and have been honored to be a part of during my time at Harvard.”
Shea Jenkins ’23, who has been playing lacrosse her whole life, was not as sick as Dwyer when she first had Covid-19 in November of 2021, but when she got it again in May, she starting having migraines that impaired her vision. “I was really, really tired, and kind of had a little cough and didn’t have a lot of energy,” Jenkins recalled. During her internship this summer, Jenkins felt dizzy everyday as if she could pass out at any moment.
In addition, “my heart started acting up,” Jenkins recalled. “It would increase at weird moments. Walking up a flight of stairs it would go to 100 BPM. I’d do a workout and it would reach almost 200. I guess it was pretty scary for me for a while trying to manage my symptoms.”
These health struggles, combined with her strenuous job, caused her to suffer from anxiety. “I was having panic attacks, trouble falling asleep, and my heart was pounding at night to the point where I couldn’t get to sleep,” she said. “I had this overwhelming fear around me, this sense of impending doom where my heart started racing and I would feel nauseous or I would start twitching.”
Entering her senior year, Jenkins is nervous about how her final lacrosse season will unfold.
“It’s been really hard trying to get back into shape for lacrosse after what I endured and the symptoms I was having,” she explained. “My heart’s feeling a little bit better everyday, and I’m in touch with a neurologist and a cardiologist, so it’s day by day getting better.”
Leaving the rowing team was never an option I previously considered, having played and loved sports all my life. But as my summer training plan ramped up and I lay awake for the third night in a row holding my chest, I asked myself if chronic chest pain at the premature age of 21 was worth it. The more I trained, the more my chest hurt. The pain no longer only occurred while I was working out. Even while eating dinner, I would grimace and move into slow, deep breathing.
I don’t want to quit. I love standing with my teammates in the boathouse, our average height a proud 5’11. My first week at school, I’ll go to MGH for a CT scan of my chest and hope that one of the best pulmonologists in the country can give me an answer that will return me to the team and sport that I love.
Lulu Patterson ’24 ([email protected]) is very tall.