Young Florida man's coronavirus-related heart failure forces doctors to act fast

'He's a kid who's not supposed to die,' the man's surgeon said

MIAMI –– “What’s going on, what’s happening? Why this? Why now? I'm just 21.”

These are questions COVID-19 survivor Jose Flores Jr. asked himself a few weeks ago when he was fighting for his life in a Florida hospital.

“I got into an induced coma where I was in shock. So I don't really remember," Flores said. "After, when I got in there, I was on the phone with my mom. I don't remember any of that. I was laying in a hospital bed, and then it felt like I was, you know, in a roulette, like it was happening again and again and again. … I still have this bruise right here. They put a machine in here for my heart.”

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COVID-19 didn’t cause Flores lung problems. Instead, it hit him in his heart. Heart surgeon Allan Stewart from Mercy Hospital says his patient had massive heart failure.

COVID-19 didn’t cause Flores lung problems. Instead, it hit him in his heart. Heart surgeon Allan Stewart from Mercy Hospital says his patient had massive heart failure. (Elina Shirazi)

COVID-19 didn’t cause Flores to have lung problems as it does for many who contract the novel virus. Instead, it hit him in his heart. Heart surgeon Allan Stewart said his patient had massive heart failure.

“He is a 21-year-old kid, who has really no other issues. So he's a kid who's not supposed to die,” said Stewart, the medical director of cardiovascular surgery at Aventura Hospital, Kendall Regional Medical Center, and Mercy Hospital.

Stewart said he had to make a quick decision to perform an emergency procedure that saved Flores's life.

“So we inserted a pump, which is essentially just an impeller and it is called the impeller. What it does is it rotates. It spins and spins really, really fast. It pulls the blood out of the heart and sends it on its way to the body. Normally, the heart does that function on its own. The heart squeezes and by squeezing, it squeezes all of its contents out to the rest of the body,” Stewart said.

(Elina Shirazi)

“Myocarditis or inflammation of the muscle of the heart prevents the heart from squeezing from doing its job. So what we did is we put a device in right into the heart, across the heart valve to take the place of the heart temporarily and allow the heart to heal," he added.

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Within two days, Flores started to make a full recovery. Stewart said this young man’s story shows the important link between the virus and direct heart damage — something he wants people to take seriously.

“Now we're learning as time goes on, well geez, there are a lot of other problems associated with this virus that could affect the heart individually, not just as a consequence of affecting the lungs,” Stewart said.

Indeed: a recent study from JAMA Cardiology shows that 78% of 100 recovered patients have ongoing heart damage, inflammation, or structural changes to their heart.