Derek Stipetich loves to push himself, physically and mentally.
The 50-year-old Cecil Township resident, a certified personal coach, trainer and body builder, is a self-confessed adrenaline junkie – among his exploits are heli skiing on untouched powder in Whistler, B.C., paddling through Class 6 rapids, and skydiving.
But Stipetich now finds himself facing a different challenge, after what he thought was a mild case of COVID-19 ended up damaging his heart so badly that he was forced to undergo a heart transplant in June.
Stipetich’s ordeal began in early November, after he tested positive for COVID-19.
During his quarantine period, the only symptom Stipetich had was gastrointestinal issues.
“I didn’t have any bad symptoms at all,” said Stipetich. “It felt like I had a stomach bug. I had my laptop with me in the guest room and I continued to work.”
But when he resumed weight lifting, Stipetich noticed his strength and energy level had decreased.
“The weights I used regularly were too heavy for me,” said Stipetich. “Christmas came around, and I felt like I didn’t have any energy during my workouts. I felt 75% weaker than before I had COVID, and I was using weights I used when I was 13.”
Stipetich’s wife, Jodie, urged him to schedule a doctor’s appointment for a post-COVID check-up, to make sure everything was all right.
At the January appointment, Stipetich’s test results came back normal.
His doctors suggested the lingering weakness could be COVID-related, and that it might take some time to fully recover.
Then, in April, Stipetich caught a mild cold. In the following weeks, Stipetich – who said he normally only sleeps four to five hours a night – began sleeping even less, as little as three hours, and started napping.
“I’d wake up in the middle of the night and it felt like I was suffocating. I was short of breath, hyperventilating. It felt like I wasn’t getting enough oxygen,” he recalled.
On May 28, Jodie scheduled a same-day appointment with a primary care physician, Dr. Kurt King, where an EKG revealed Stipetich had atrial fibrillation, an irregular and rapid heartbeat, and King instructed him to go to the emergency room immediately.
Stipetich was taken by ambulance to Allegheny General Hospital – helicopters had been grounded due to weather – where doctors found his liver and kidneys were failing, and he was in complete heart failure.
The culprit, said Dr. Azam Hadi, Stipevich’s supervising cardiologist, was COVID myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart which doctors linked directly to his COVID infection six months before.
“Derek’s was one of those rare instances where the virus causes inflammation and scarring of the heart, which in his case culminated in heart failure,” explained Hadi. “Derek had cardiogenic shock, where his heart was unable to pump blood to vital organs of the body, and he needed mechanical support to sustain his life.”
Stipetich was placed on an ECMO machine, the highest level of life support. The machine took blood from his body, added oxygen and removed carbon dioxide, and then returned it to his body.
He remained on ECMO until June 5, when a donor heart – which belonged to a 20-year-old male – arrived.
It was, said Jodie, “the most beautiful gift a family could ever give.”
On June 5, nine days after he walked into the doctor’s office, Stipetich received a new heart, becoming one of the first patients in the region to receive a heart transplant directly connected to a COVID-19 infection.
Stipetich is among a small and seemingly random group of people across the world with COVID-19 where the virus affects the organs and damages them over time – sometimes so severely that a transplant is necessary.
Said Hadi, “Derek’s virus has demonstrated it can essentially attack any vital organ of the body, including the heart. We’ve seen an entire spectrum of heart problems with this virus.”
Stipetich continues to work to regain his strength and stamina after the heart transplant. He is undergoing cardiac therapy and physical therapy.
The close-knit family, including daughters Sierra, 21, a dancer with the Pittsburgh Ballet Theater who moved back home to help out, and Cheyenne, 14, has rallied around Stipetich as he continues to mend.
He’s lifting weights again, but he’s not allowed to lift weights that impact his chest or back, or lift over his head.
During the three weeks he was hospitalized, Stipetich dropped 55 pounds from his 225-pound frame.
Additionally, he developed drop foot, which resulted in limited range of motion in his left foot.
“I love fitness. I’ve been lifting since I’ve been 13 years old, and it was quite devastating to see my body,” said Stipetich.
Stipetich’s life-changing bout with COVID has given him a new purpose.
He is launching a nonprofit organization called Pumping Adrenaline to provide resources and information for those who have undergone COVID-19-related transplants, and to raise money for research into COVID-related heart illnesses.
“I don’t want anyone to be me, to go through what I went through,” said Stipetich. “I was in perfect health, and I want to tell people how fast this happened. If you caught COVID and you’re not feeling right or you have symptoms that don’t feel normal, don’t wait. Get checked. You think you’re recovered, and you think feel good, but I think the after care gets overlooked. I’ll keep telling my story, and if it helps even one person, it’s worth it.”
Hadi said Stipetich’s life-threatening illness reinforces how COVID can impact everyone, including healthy, active people.
“It cannot only affect you, or me, or anyone else at random, but it can do so in a very severe manner and can push you even to the verge of death, or even kill you, as there’s ample evidence of over 700,000 people dying in this country,” said Hadi.
Hadi said there is a message in Stipetich’s story.
“We have to be vigilant and cognizant about what the virus can do, and do our part to protect ourselves, our loved ones, and our society from the greater consequences of this virus,” said Hadi.
For Stipetich, who takes eight medications a day, including anti-rejection drugs and antibiotics, life will never again be “normal.”
“There are certain things I can never do again because I’m on meds for the rest of my life. But, there are things that are permanently off the list, and there are things that are temporarily off the list,” he said. “The only way I can get closest to the original me is keep up with the meds, and fitness and diet. And I’ll do that. I’m working on a new me.”