Jeff, 61, is seen April 2 through a window at his lake house in Embden. Jeff was diagnosed with the coronavirus last year on March 22. He has returned to his home in Massachusetts but continues to struggle with shortness of breath and other health issues. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel file Buy this Photo

It’s been nearly a year since a Massachusetts man traveling with his family to their Somerset County vacation home started feeling the symptoms of COVID-19, becoming among the first wave of people in Maine with the disease.

He’s not out of the woods yet.

Jeff, who is 62 and has asked since the beginning that his full name be withheld out of fear of reprisal, said in a recent interview that while his health has largely improved since contracting the illness, there remain lingering health after-affects even a year later.

Among the most worrisome problems is that he now experiences rapid spikes in his heart rate at random times, after previously having no history of any heart conditions, and a stubborn shortness of breath that lasts many months after he tested negative for COVID. He’s been getting back into an exercise routine, after being advised by his doctor for months to take it easy.

“I do a fair amount of business travel, so it can be difficult to exercise,” Jeff said. “I wish in hindsight I had started exercising sooner. I could be further along. I think I’m in a pretty good spot, but the spike in the heart beat is really concerning. That could kill you.”

Jeff was in Maine visiting his lake house in Embden with his family when he was diagnosed with COVID-19 on March 22, and he first announced his coronavirus diagnosis on a Boston radio show. His family then left for Massachusetts while he quarantined in Embden with his 18-year-old son, who did not contract the virus.

Jeff was retested in early April — twice over a 48-hour period — and the results again came back positive. He continued to be short of breath, which was the primary symptom of his COVID-19 infection. Jeff later tested negative and arrived back home in Massachusetts the night of Sunday, April 26.

Initially, he picked up a pulse oximeter to measure his oxygen levels while he was still testing positive for the virus, but during his recovery it became a barometer of the troubling after-effects involving his heart.

Some research has suggested that while lung injuries and respiratory problems are the better-known symptoms of a COVID-19 infection, heart damage can also be as significant a complication. In January, a contributing writer for the Harvard Medical School health blog said studies have shown the virus “may directly invade or inflame the heart muscle, and it may indirectly harm the heart by disrupting the balance between oxygen supply and demand.”

An American Heart Association writer wrote in September that nearly a quarter of people hospitalized with COVID-19 have been diagnosed with cardiovascular complications, contributing to about 40% of all COVID-related deaths. But even people who have not been hospitalized, like Jeff, have been at risk of developing some kind of cardiac injury.

Jeff said his shortness of breath symptom has improved over the last year. He developed an irregular heart beat while back at home and was prescribed heart medication that seems to have addressed that issue.

But he continues to this day to experience spikes in his heartbeat: he’ll go from resting at 60 beats per minute to suddenly as high as 180-190. He’ll watch the pulse oximeter on his finger with alarm as the spike occurs quickly for seemingly no reason.

“It definitely gets your attention; it happens pretty fast and you know it’s rising,” Jeff said. “The first time it was kind of shocking. I wondered, ‘Is this a heart attack?’ It’s just a crazy phenomenon and it can happen once a day for a week or take three weeks before it happens again.”

It’s happened while he’s driving in the car and made him feel dizzy, and he’ll need to pull over and wait for it to pass.

When he was in contact with Maine and Massachusetts health officials, Jeff said he’d offered to submit to studies if they were interested, but that hasn’t happened.

Nor has Jeff yet received a COVID-19 vaccine in Massachusetts, where eligibility is currently only people age 65 and older, and for people with certain medical conditions or for certain essential workers.

Meanwhile, Jeff is spending 30-40 minutes a day on a bike as he gradually increases his exercise regimen. His personal motivation is to be healthy enough to once again referee youth ice hockey at the end of this season.

His family has remained healthy and not contracted the virus. “I think our family saw the light a little bit with me getting it and taken more precautions than the average family,” he said.

They hope to be back up to their vacation home in Somerset County in the spring, and enjoy hiking Maine trails in the summer like before.

“It’s been an interesting journey for me. I feel like I’m fortunate because I’m still alive,” Jeff said, noting that a friend died a few weeks ago from COVID. “I’ve learned that your health is the most important thing you have.”

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