PHILADELPHIA — Maddie Neville contracted COVID-19 in October while living in an apartment off-campus near Temple University. She developed only mild symptoms — some coughing, plus she couldn’t smell or taste anything.

After quarantining and feeling back to her usual healthy self, Neville traveled home to Gouldsboro, in Monroe County, for Thanksgiving, the coronavirus seeming a thing of the past.

But while there, Neville found herself gasping for breath and gripped by intense chest pain. She had tested negative for COVID-19 before returning home, so she assumed the symptoms were unrelated. After a trip to an urgent care center and two hospitals, her condition worsened.

“My limbs started to tingle and I passed out,” Neville said. “I woke up and there were 16 doctors and nurses standing around me screaming.”

She was airlifted Dec. 2 to the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, where doctors diagnosed her with congestive heart failure brought on by complications of COVID-19.

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Neville, who turned 21 Monday, is now back at her parents’ house recovering, but still fighting the physical and psychological effects of severe inflammation that left her heart pumping at 10% of its capacity.

She decided to tell her story after reading social media posts claiming the viral disease is fake.

“I was angry,” Neville said. “I just couldn’t deal with that anymore.”

‘It was horrible’

In the fall, one of Neville’s four roommates tested positive for COVID-19. On Oct. 24, Neville experienced symptoms and tested positive three days later.

“All I had was a dry cough, and lost my taste and smell,” Neville said. “It was super mild. No fever at all. I really didn’t feel that bad.”

She quarantined until Nov. 3. Her symptoms faded; her senses of taste and smell returned. Armed with a negative test, she went to the family’s Poconos-area home for Thanksgiving to see her mother, Christine, father Fran, and older sister Kathryn.

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While walking her dog, Sadie, Neville, once a competitive swimmer, found herself out of breath. She chalked it up to lack of exercise while keeping busy with her studies at Temple’s Fox School of Business.

The day after Thanksgiving, the family planned a trip to a Christmas market. But Neville’s shortness of breath worsened and more troubling symptoms surfaced.

“The chest pain was horrible,” Neville said. “And the cough was so bad I had to keep suppressing it. I had a horrible fever and chills. I had none of those things when I had COVID.”

She went to an urgent care center but tested negative for both COVID-19 and flu. Doctors thought she might have pneumonia and prescribed steroids and antibiotics. Still, things worsened and she was running a 104-degree fever.

“I decided I needed to go to the emergency room,” Neville said.

There, doctors ran a CT scan and chest X-rays and correctly diagnosed pneumonia. But even more alarming, her blood oxygen level had dropped to 80%, well below the healthy range of 95% to 100%.

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On Nov. 30 she was admitted to Moses Taylor Hospital in Scranton and treated for pneumonia with intravenous fluids to prevent dehydration.

“They upped my oxygen and all through the night I felt so horrible,” Neville recalled. “The chest pain was horrible and I had a hard time breathing. I wasn’t sleeping. I was in just so much pain.”

During an attempt to draw blood, Neville passed out. She woke to find a team of frantic nurses and doctors scrambling into action.

“They did a test on my heart and found myocarditis,” which is an inflammation of the heart muscle.

“My heart was functioning at 11% and that was enough for them to call it congestive heart failure,” she said.

Neville was airlifted to the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. Her family had to wait anxiously at home.

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“The night that I got to Penn it was kind of crazy and there were a ton of nurses waiting for me. … I was awake until 4 a.m. and they were working on me the whole time. The nurses were really awesome. They did another CT scan, then an echocardiogram, a chest MRI, and all kinds of chest X-rays. … I had a whole slew of doctors coming in to see me.”

Doctors determined that the fluids Neville had been given as part of standard care for pneumonia had been causing her weakened heart to work overtime. She was given diuretics to remove the fluids. After six days of treatment, Neville was sent home. She had lost 20 pounds of water weight and felt much better.

Rhondalyn McLean, a cardiologist at HUP who treated Neville, said that at first it was unclear what caused the heart problem because she had no known preexisting conditions. Medical teams discussed her condition for hours, she recalled.

“Her heart rate was about 150 and she was breathing very quickly,” said McLean, who is the medical director for heart transplantation at HUP. “The heart was having a hard time keeping up with the stresses in her body.”

The HUP doctors, who learned that Neville previously had mild COVID-19, connected that with her symptoms and the pieces fell into place. McLean confirmed the diagnosis of myocarditis, and connected it to the virus.

McLean said it’s not 100% certain COVID-19 caused the heart issue, but it’s most likely. It’s also possible the pneumonia was connected to COVID-19, she said, but that is less clear because so much remains unknown about the disease, plus weeks had passed since Neville had the virus.

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After Neville’s fluid levels were lowered, her heart began to gain strength.

McLean said tests showed Neville’s heart was close to normal by the time she was discharged.

McLean is optimistic Neville will fully recover in time.

‘Nightmares’

“I feel just so, so much better,” Neville said last Monday from home. “But it’s still hard and I’m weak for the first time in my life. … I’m definitely not back to normal.”

Neville said she still gets winded walking up stairs and needs help with other tasks.

“I’m a 20-year-old who still needs help in the shower and my mom has to brush my hair,” she said. “This could be something I live with for a long time. It’s too early to tell if I’m going to have a lifelong issue with this. So it’s definitely scary.”

Her mother, Christine, also wonders about the long-term effects.

“Since she’s been home she’s scared of getting sick,” she said. “And we’re dealing with nightmares. This has been life-changing for us.”

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Christine went to her daughter’s Temple apartment recently to clean out her room.

“That was emotional for me,” she said.

Still, she said Maddie is “getting stronger every day” and plans to continue her coursework online. She supported a Facebook post Maddie wrote about her illness to “serve as a reality check” to those complaining about wearing masks, shortened business hours, or other inconveniences because of the pandemic.

“I hope this story resonates with some of you,” Maddie wrote, “and perhaps provides you with a fresh perspective during the new peak of the pandemic. And to those of you reading this that still don’t believe in the severity of the pandemic, I pray nothing of this sort happens to you or your loved ones. …”

(Jennifer Luxton / The Seattle Times)

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