Med Student's Cardiac Crisis a COVID-Era Medical Mystery

Maureen Salamon

October 30, 2020

Medical student Ramya Yeleti after her incredible recovery.

Editor's note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's Coronavirus Resource Center.

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.

I definitely thought there was a chance I would close my eyes and never open them again.

Ramya's flu symptoms 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 ondansetron 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 hepatitis, appendicitis, 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. "Her EKG looked 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 myocarditis, but coronavirus never crossed my mind.

"I knew she had acute myocarditis, 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, the heart failure transplant 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 a handful of people in the world to be reinfected with SARS-CoV-2. Also emerging are cases of COVID-related myocarditis 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."

Another Wrinkle

Ramya Yeleti receiving care at IU Health Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis.

The next 48 hours brought astonishing news: Ramya's heart function had rebounded to nearly normal, and her ejection fraction increased to about 45%. Heart transplantation wouldn't be necessary, although Rao stood poised to follow through if ECMO only sustained, rather than improved, Ramya's prognosis.

"Ramya was so sick that if she didn't recover, the only option would be a heart transplant," said Rao. "But we wanted to do everything to keep that heart."

After steroid and COVID treatment, Ramya's heart started to come back. "It didn't make sense to me," said Rao. "I don't know what helped. If we hadn't done ECMO, her heart probably wouldn't have recovered, so I would say we have to support these patients and give them time for the heart to recover, even to the point of ECMO."

They would need to stop her heart and restart it, and I was concerned it would not restart.

Despite the good news, Ramya's survival still hung in the balance. When she was disconnected from ECMO, clinicians discovered that the Impella device had caused a rare complication, damaging her mitral valve. The valve could be repaired surgically, but both Rao and Ram felt great trepidation at the prospect of cardiopulmonary bypass during the open-heart procedure.

"They would need to stop her heart and restart it, and I was concerned it would not restart," Ram explained. "I didn't like the idea of open-heart surgery, but my biggest fear was she was not going to survive it because of a really fresh, sick heart."

The cardiologists' fears did, in fact, come to pass: it took an hour to coax Ramya's heart back at the end of surgery. But, just as the surgeon was preparing to reconnect Ramya to ECMO in desperation, "her heart recovered again," Rao reported.

"Some things you never forget in life," she said. "I can't describe how everyone in the OR felt, all taking care of her. I told Ramya, 'you are a fighter'."

New Strength

Six days would pass before Ramya woke up and learned of the astounding series of events that saved her. She knew "something was really wrong" because of the incision at the center of her chest, but learning she'd been on ECMO and the heart transplant list drove home how close to death she'd actually come.

"Most people don't get off ECMO; they die on it," she said. "And the chances of dying on the heart transplant list are very high. It was very strange to me that this was my story all of a sudden, when a week and a half earlier I was on rotation."

The Yeleti family. From left to right: Ramya, her brother Rohith, mother Indira, father Ram, and twin sister Divya.

Ongoing physical therapy over the past 3 months has transformed Ramya from a state of profound physical weakness to a place of relative strength. The now-fourth-year med student is turning 26 in November and is hungry to restart in-person rotations. Her downtime has been filled in part with researching myocarditis and collaborating with Rao on her own case study for journal publication.

But the mental trauma from her experience has girded her in ways she knows will make her stronger personally and professionally in the years ahead.

"It's still very hard. I'm still recovering," she acknowledged. "I described it to my therapist as an invisible wound on my brain."

"When I came out of the hospital, I still had ECMO wounds, deep gashes on my legs that affected how fast and how long I could walk," she said. "I felt like the same thing was going on my brain — a huge cut no one could see."

Her intention to specialize in psychiatry has become more pressing now that Ramya has realized the impact of trauma on mental health.

"My body failing me was awful, but I could handle it," she said. "Losing any part of my mind would have been way worse. I want to take care of that in my patients."

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