PITTSBURGH (KDKA) – A Pittsburgh fitness instructor who survived COVID-19 resurfaced the virus months later. Doctors said the virus attacked Derek Stipetich’s heart and the only way to save him was to give him a new one.
Stipetich thrived in extreme adventures, skiing, and living to the fullest. He slowed down a bit when he was diagnosed with COVID-19 last November, but described his symptoms as mild. Her family later became concerned when the persistent symptoms progressed.
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“The weights that I used regularly were just too heavy for me,” Stipetich said.
His wife and daughters begged him to return to the doctor.“Make sure everything’s okay with your lungs, go check everything,” he recalls as he said.
It was in January. Doctors told him he was in good health. But in April, Stipetich caught a cold and couldn’t sleep. “I would wake up and feel like I was suffocating,” Stipetich said.
His family urged him to go to the hospital, believing he might have COVID-19 again. It turned out that Stipetich was very ill and in cardiogenic shock. “During all of these tests they came back and said there was nothing more they could do for me,” he said.
The news became more terrifying when Stipetich discovered that his kidneys and liver were failing, as was his heart. “His heart had broken to such an extent that he needed to have his life supported by a mechanical heart pump,” said Dr Azam Hadi, a heart failure cardiologist at the Allegheny Health Network. Hadi was part of the Stipetich team at AGH.
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“We were able to reverse his shock process to the point where he recovered his organs except his heart,” Hadi added.
Stipetich and his family would learn he needed a transplant. After eight days of artificial pumping of his heart, a donor heart arrived. Dr Hadi said he has seen a lot of heart problems linked to COVID-19, including death, but this was a first.
Doctors believe the virus has remained dormant in Stipetich’s body. “The dormant virus continued to inflame the heart. And the inflammation, in turn, weakens the heart, scars and cannot pump, ”said Dr Hadi.
The recovery was not easy. Stipetich’s solid body took another hit, as his mobility was affected.
But now, for several months, Stipetich is regaining energy. And while extreme sports and lifting may not be in his future, Stipetich and his family have a new goal.
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A business that Stipetich started before his medical ordeal called Pumping Adrenaline Beating All Odds has been transformed into a non-profit organization to benefit heart transplant recipients, especially those associated with COVID-19.