MISSOULA — There are precious moments in the garden together for Scott and Jaycie SleepingBear – moments that they’ll never take for granted again.
Jaycie contracted COVID last December, but weeks went by and she wasn’t getting better. So she finally went to the hospital, thinking maybe she had pneumonia. But she didn't -- COVID had attacked her heart.
“They did an echo and discovered my heart was only pumping about 10%, so the virus had attacked my heart and enlarged it,” Jaycie recalled. “And so it wasn’t that I had pneumonia because when I was walking, even across the house, I started to get breathless and that’s what got me scared to go to the ER finally and I was, ’Oh, I’m not beating this by myself’.”
Jaycie was quickly flown to a Seattle cardiac care facility where she spent months in the hospital with a failing heart - sometimes conscious, sometimes not. All the while her husband Scott, due to COVID protocols, could only get a few precious moments with his beloved wife.
“They told us that it was heart failure. And then you know, so I was devastated. I’m about to lose my wife because I wasn't sure...you think of heart failure you think they’re going to die,” Scott said. “So, that’s the first place I went.”
“I was always so sad and worried for people before I got COVID that they would meet their end of life and have to go through a scary time without their family next to them. And then I had to do it. And I was in the hospital for almost four months.” - Jaycie SleepingBear
Nurses would put Jaycie's phone to her ear as Scott whispered his love and encouragement as she lay in bed, fighting for her life. But he was alone, too -- and terrified this woman he loved so much, was going to die.
"It's just a crazy rollercoaster. More down than up. I’ll be honest with you, I struggled with suicide,” Scott told MTN News. “Because when I went over there, I had actually taken a hangun with me. And if she wasn’t going to make it, I didn’t plan on coming home.”
But Jayci held on even as her heart was failing her and what’s keeping her alive now is a Left Ventricular Assist (LVAD).
"These are the batteries that run it. And these monitor the power and the flow of...and then it hooks into my stomach and goes into my heart where there’s a metal pump that pumps all the blood through my body,” Jaycie explained.
She will wear it until she is approved for a heart transplant.
COVID-19 is triggering for some. In a Harvard Gazette article, one professor called it the “ultimate stress test for the heart” and there is evidence it can harm your heart.
It’s something one of Jaycie’s cardiologists, April Stempien Otero, saw from the onset of the pandemic. MTN News spoke with her via zoom from the Heart Institute at the University of Washington Medical center.
“I have been a practicing cardiologist in heart failure/transplant for over 20 years. I have never seen anything like this virus. And what I have seen it do to people’s hearts. I have watched people with COVID carefuly monitored. I’ve watched their hearts just stop and it [was] clearly from this virus.” - Dr. April Stempien Otero
Jaycie’s severe heart damage happened quickly. Researchers say sometimes the damage shows up later. Studies underway now will help determine the extent to which COVID-19 caused cardiac problems in this pandemic.
“I didn’t have any known heart problems. They did test my heart for scar tissue and that didn’t show anything that might have been missed. It looked like it was just the virus that attacked my heart,” Jaycie explained.
These days, wherever they go, their ‘go bag' goes with them. It's filled with spare batteries and a controller - and with her LVAD team in Seattle on speed dial. The heart pump she wears can not fail. “Life has changed drastically,” Jaycie said.
For now, the couple must live apart. Jaycie is in Seattle near her heart team while Scott is holding the fort here at home. It’s not easy but together, they’re getting through it - one heartbeat at a time.
"I’m one of the lucky ones. I had to go through a lot but I still made it,” Jaycie concluded.