PITTSBURGH (KDKA) -- A Pittsburgh fitness instructor who survived COVID-19 had the virus resurface months later.
Doctors said the virus attacked his heart and the only way to save him was to give him a new heart.
Derek Stipetich thrived at extreme adventures, skiing and living life to the fullest. He slowed down a bit when diagnosed with COVID-19 last November but described his symptoms as mild.
Later, his family became worried when lingering symptoms progressed.
"The weights that I was regularly using were entirely too heavy for me," Stipetich said.
His wife and daughters pleaded with him to go back to the doctor.
"Make sure everything is OK with your lungs, go get everything checked," Stipetich said.
That was January. Doctors told him he was healthy. But in April, Stipetich came down with 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 may have COVID-19 again. It turned out Stipetich was very sick and in cardiogenic shock.
"Throughout all these tests, they came back and said, there is nothing more that they can do for me," Stipetich said.
The news became more terrifying when Stipetich found out his kidneys and liver were failing, and so was his heart.
"His heart had given way to a point that he needed to have his life sustained by a mechanical heart pump," said Dr. Azam Hadi, an advanced heart failure cardiologist at Allegheny Health Network.
Dr. Hadi was on Stipetich's team at AGH.
"We were able to turn his shock process around to a point where he recovered his organs except his heart," the doctor said.
Next, Stipetich and his family would learn he needed a transplant. After eight days of his heart being pumped artificially, a donor heart arrived.
Dr. Hadi said he has seen a lot of COVID-19 heart issues, including death, but this was a first. Doctors believe the virus remained dormant in Stipetich's body.
"The dormant virus continued to cause inflammation of the heart. And inflammation, in turn, makes the heart weak and get scarred and not able to pump," Dr. Hadi said.
Recovery hasn't been easy. Stipetich's strong body took another hit, as his mobility has been impacted.
But now several months in, Stipetich is gaining energy. And while extreme sports and lifting may not be in his future, Stipetich and his family have a new purpose.
A business Stipetich started prior to his medical ordeal called Pumping Adrenaline Beating All Odds has been turned into a non-profit organization to benefit heart transplant recipients, especially those associated with COVID-19.
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