Heart of an athlete: La Crosse doctors try to understand COVID-19’s strain on heart

Mayo Clinic Health System studying athletes with COVID-19, monitoring their heart symptoms after returning to competition
Heart Of An Athlete

LA CROSSE, Wis. (WKBT) – Doctors at Mayo Clinic Health System have their eyes on athletes’ hearts after they contract COVID-19. This group is one of the healthiest populations, but viruses can damage the heart.

If an athlete returns too quickly, the consequences could cost someone their life. Kenosha Tremper High School Graduate Lauren Fleming finds joy on the field.

“It’s like soccer football and hockey kind of all in one,” Lauren Fleming said, describing her sport, Lacrosse. “It definitely does take some hand-eye coordination for sure.” 

COVID-19 accompanied Fleming’s freshman introduction at UW-La Crosse.

“We had 75 cases in the first week just within athletics,” Joel Luedke said, assistant director of athletic training at UW-La Crosse. 

Fleming tested positive the first week of classes.

“I had a headache and a stuffy nose like the whole time,” she said,

For Fleming, college schedule changes were more of a headache than the virus itself.

“…back and forth between there and home so many times,” Fleming said.

She started training again for competition and that’s when she noticed a change.

“We were doing just light drills, light running, whatever. By the end of practice, I’m like, ‘I can’t breathe.’ It hurts to breathe,” Fleming said. “It’s sharp pains in my chest. The air is thin.”

UW-La Crosse athletics requires COVID-positive athletes to take an electrocardiogram test or an EKG.

“Come to find out it’s kind of smart because I guess COVID can mess with your heart,” Fleming said.

The Journal of the American Medical Association found four out of 26 athletes came back with myocarditis, swelling of the heart muscle.

“Symptoms such as chest pain feeling their heart racing, palpitations, shortness of breath that persist beyond ten days, that definitely gets our attention,” Dr. Jacob Erickson said, a sports medicine physician at Mayo Clinic Health System.

Fleming fit the description.

“I’m just sitting watching a movie all of the sudden I get chest pains and can’t breathe,” Fleming said.

Failing to treat this swelling can be life-threatening. This can lead to permanent damage requiring surgery, according to Dr. Joe Poterucha, a cardiologist at Mayo Clinic Health System.

Mayo Clinic Health System launched a study using checkups with around 200 athletes from UWL, Viterbo, and Saint Mary’s in Winona, who contracted COVID-19. Lauren was one of two mild cases of pericarditis. The outer portion of her heart experienced some swelling. The problem may seem small, but these numbers need context.

“When you extrapolate that over the thousands of if not millions of athletes competing across all levels of competition, that equates to a lot of athletes that could be at risk for unknown complications,” Andrew Jagim said, a sports medicine Ph.D. at Mayo Clinic Health System.

That’s why the Big Ten had a rigorous 21-day COVID protocol for players like Wisconsin Badgers Quarterback Grahm Mertz. Not everyone agrees with this level of caution.

“If they miss their season that could be their one shot to get a scholarship, to win a championship, to up their draft stock,” Jagim said.

However, this study allows La Crosse health experts to help athletes find a middle ground.

“We can scale back on some of this testing,” Erickson said.

Division III athletes don’t benefit from large athletic departments. These athletes are often left paying for these medical visits themselves. Poterucha said this research can save people money.

“We don’t want to waste people’s money with unnecessary testing,” Poterucha said

Knowledge helps coaches avoid placing someone in a game with a heart needing rest.

“For all of us I think one catastrophic case is more than it should be,” Luedke said.

Fleming is grateful her heart still beats with a chance to experience joy on the field, again.

“It’s gonna feel like a dream because it’s been so long since that’s actually happened,” Fleming said.

Dr. Erickson recommends athletes who test positive for COVID-19 rest for a minimum of 10 days. That means no exercise during that time.