Seizures and battered heart: how COVID-19 scarred a healthy Sydney doctor

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A fit and healthy Sydney GP has described his harrowing brush with COVID-19 that triggered epileptic seizures and permanently scarred his heart.

Dr Warren Lee, an avid cyclist, can no longer drive nor exercise after testing positive for the novel coronavirus (SAR-CoV-2) in April.

Mosman GP Dr Warren Lee was a fit and healthy cyclist before contracting COVID-19.

Mosman GP Dr Warren Lee was a fit and healthy cyclist before contracting COVID-19. Credit:NSW Jewish Board of Deputies

His case highlights the potentially severe and long-term effects of COVID-19 on relatively young people with no known risk factors.

Dr Lee and his colleagues are baffled by the immense toll of COVID-19 on the 50-year-old - the youngest doctor at his Mosman practice.

On April 1, Dr Lee was seeing patients with flu symptoms at the clinic, wearing a face mask and a full-sleeve gown when he noticed he had a mild sore throat.

“It didn’t feel like anything, just a scratchy throat,” Dr Lee said in a video posted on Facebook by the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies.

But he immediately stopped working in line with NSW Health guidelines.

“It’s a very unusual experience going up to the waiting room and telling everyone, ‘You have to go home’,” he said.

“I closed the door, left the office and went straight to a drive-through clinic, had a swab. I went home and closed the door at home and I stayed in the room for another 29 days and I never left.”

His test result was the first positive case he had encountered.

The symptoms worsened overnight. He had a slight fever of 37.5 degrees, mild coughing, back and neck pain, and nausea over the first five days.

“I do distinctly remember the [bed]sheets being soaked with sweat. Every two to three hours they had to be changed,” Dr Lee said.

He started feeling a little better, but on day seven he started developing more concerning symptoms.

“I was quite short of breath, I couldn’t really breathe, I couldn’t finish a sentence without coughing,” he said.

Dr Lee’s timeline corresponds with multiple reports suggesting many COVID-19 patients deteriorate in the second week after first developing symptoms.

“This COVID-19 was pretty strange,” Dr Lee said. “I am reasonably young … I race a road bike, I raced for the Sydney cycling club and I raced overseas, I raced in France and I like to think I’m reasonably fit."

But as soon as he had cleared the virus he found he struggled to ride the one-kilometre flat road to his local hairdresser and, as he sat outside the barber, his chest was “bouncing around”.

A stress test using a treadmill conducted by a cardiologist found Dr Lee has an abnormal heart rhythm.

About six weeks after he had cleared the virus Dr Lee had an epileptic seizure at work and was hospitalised for four days.

An electroencephalogram - a test that monitors electrical brain activity- found Dr Lee had new onset epilepsy.

“I had never had that before,” he said. “I am no longer allowed to ride a bicycle, I am not allowed to drive a car, I’m on medication now."

A scan of his heart at St Vincent’s Hospital in Darlinghurst found a scar “right down the middle of my heart” - a condition known as myocarditis - “which is part of the virus”, he said.

“So I’m not allowed to exercise either … that’s a bit of a shock to me, being as fit as I am, that I am not allowed to exercise, I am not allowed to drive.”

The long term effects of the novel virus are largely unknown, considering COVID-19 was first discovered in late 2019. But mounting evidence shows the virus pervades multiple organs, including the lungs, heart and brain, muscles and digestive system.

The ADAPT study led by researchers at St Vincent's and the Kirby Institute aims to understand why COVID-19 pushes some patients to the brink of death, and only mildly affects others by monitoring more than 100 patients over one year.

Dr Lee urged the public to maintain social distancing to help prevent the spread of the virus.

“Nothing else works," he said. "We don’t have a medication for this. We don’t have immunisation for this.

“If you get the virus the chances are you will probably be fine, you will probably be okay, but there is a chance you might not be and that has a massive impact to your lifestyle.

“The 1 per cent fatality rate … you don’t get to choose who that 1 per cent is. It could be your mother, your father, it could be you. It certainly has hit home for me … why am I the one affected? The answer is no one knows."

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