A young man who suffered a serious health event more often associated with older people is sharing his story to help others understand the very real consequences of COVID-19.
Arizona resident Riley Behrens tested positive for the coronavirus last Wednesday, ahead of what was supposed to be a trip to see his parents for Thanksgiving.
It started as a headache and turned into chest pain. Things that normally required little effort left him short of breath.
Soon after, the 23-year-old started to notice an unusual weakness in his left side. He lost grip strength and struggled to do simple things for his dog.
“I was dropping dishes while trying to wash them,” he said. “The vision in my left eye was spotty.”
By Saturday, he was admitted to hospital in Tempe, Az. There, things became clearer: Behrens had suffered a “mini-stroke” — a transient ischemic attack (TIA) — as a result of his COVID-19 infection.
“I actually made the doctor repeat it,” Behrens said, eyes still wide in disbelief.
“He walked me through it again. I thought, No. Not me. I’m 23. I’m an athlete. How can I be sitting in a hospital bed?”
Virus and the brain
The novel coronavirus typically attacks the lungs, but there is growing evidence about its effects on another organ — the brain.
The warnings started back in April. Doctors cautioned that the virus was causing strokes in younger adults who were otherwise asymptomatic. Even with mild symptoms, people as young as 30 reported experiencing strokes.
Scientists believe that COVID-19 can cause the blood to clot unnaturally — a stroke being a possible consequence of that. Canadian researchers reported in a September study that stroke was the first symptom of the disease in asymptomatic patients under 50.
The type of stroke Behrens suffered, a TIA, doesn’t usually cause permanent damage, but there is increasing concern about how the virus can impact neurological function in the long-run.
“My worry is that we have millions of people with COVID-19 now. And if in a year’s time we have 10 million recovered people, and those people have cognitive deficits … then that’s going to affect their ability to work and their ability to go about activities of daily living,” Adrian Owen, a neuroscientist at Western University in Ontario, told Reuters in a previous interview.
It’s unclear exactly how common it is to suffer a TIA while infected with COVID-19. Behren believes the responses to his Twitter thread about his experience might shed some light.
“There are people on there saying, ‘Oh yeah, I had one three months ago at 24’ or ‘I had one five months ago at 32’ or ‘My 19-year-old daughter had one last week,'” Behren said.
“I’m not a doctor or anything, but that Twitter thread shows a lot of young people.”
‘Take this seriously’
Young people have been a focal point of the pandemic.
They’re less likely to become seriously ill and far less likely to die but they are not exempt from either outcome. Over the summer, the vast majority of new infections in both Canada and the U.S. were young adults — many of whom contracted the virus by going to bars, restaurants, attending indoor parties and, in some cases, disregarding public health recommendations.
Behrens said he’s been “super careful,” buying groceries online and limiting his outings, but he believes his peers aren’t being as diligent.
It’s why he tweeted about his experience while hooked up to tubes and wires. It was mainly for his inner circle, to say “I’m close to you. This happened to me.”
His story resonated far beyond his own friends. The Twitter thread has since gone viral, amassing thousands of likes and retweets.
“I want people to know this is real,” he said.
“Had you asked me a week ago if I would be this sick, I probably would’ve laughed in your face. At 23, I never thought I’d be sitting in a hospital bed barely able to move my left side or have trouble with my sight.”
Behrens believes his story should serve as a “wake-up call.” Even a young, healthy person who did “all the right things” can still find themselves sick. He believes he was exposed by a friend he let crash at his apartment after the friend lost his housing. He had even asked the friend about his recent close contact history.
“This is not some sort of hoax or a joke. It’s not that ‘the media is making it worse.’ If you don’t think this is real, you need to open your eyes,” he said.
“I had no idea I’d go from being able to play a whole rugby game to getting tired walking down the hall of my apartment.”
Behrens knows he’s only a short way through his road to recovery.
Even while sitting in front of his computer via Zoom, he described feeling dizzy, “like I’m on a boat where it’s rocking back and forth.”
It is unknown whether he’ll fully recover. Research on the link between COVID-19 and the brain is not yet definitive.
In the short term, Behrens will need to add physical therapy and neurological rehab to his already busy agenda, while being a student and aspiring politician.
Overcoming the “surreal” feeling of being a 23-year-old stroke survivor will be a hurdle all its own.
“Saying the words, ‘I had a stroke,’ at my age? It’s still surreal,” he said.
“That’s the point — take this seriously. It could affect you more than you think.”
–With files from Reuters