When COVID-19 Strikes the Young

October 15, 2020

When COVID-19’s spread first made news in the U.S. in the spring, then-18-year-old Tyler Bruno didn’t think much of it. “Big news outlets were saying people my age have a huge immunity to this virus, making it almost impossible for me to get it,” he says. “I wasn’t worried about getting it.”

However, he was worried about his parents getting the virus since they worked in areas where the virus was hitting hard. His worst fears came true: First, his father got it, then his mother.

His father ended up in the hospital for several days, while his mother’s case was mild enough that she could remain home, although she was struggling, too. With both of his parents being sick, Tyler did his part to keep the house running. “I tried to clean up around the house as much as I could,” he says. “Seeing my parents like that made me nervous. I would wake up in the middle of the night most days and go upstairs to see if they were doing OK.”

Then he got sick, as well.

In Bad Shape

It started mildly. Tyler didn’t have a cough or trouble breathing, just a slight fever and loss of appetite. But within a week, his temperature hit 103.3, and on day five, he woke up with a sharp pain in his chest that only increased in intensity if he tried to move. For a baseball athlete like himself, it was a shocking circumstance.

With shooting pains in his chest near his heart, his father took him to the Emergency Department at Bayshore Medical Center. Tyler brought a list of all his symptoms written out because his breathing was so labored that he couldn’t speak, and his parents weren’t allowed in with him at the time to limit the spread of COVID-19.

“I don’t remember what was said because I had a 103.2 fever when I entered the hospital. But I remember the nurses putting a wet towel on my head and oxygen in my nose to help me breathe,” he says. “I also remember the nurse telling me what kinds of medicine she was giving me, but I couldn’t understand what she was saying. I was very out of it.”

“His oxygen levels were miserable,” says Georgios Giannakopoulos, D.O., an infectious disease specialist at Bayshore. Tyler couldn’t talk or walk to the bathroom because he was so out of breath.

“I remember Tyler was in pretty bad shape when he came in. It was glaring because of his young age,” says Nidal Babaa, M.D., an internal medicine specialist at Bayshore. “It was scary because we didn’t know a lot about the virus at the time [in April 2020]. We knew it was a deadly disease for older people or people with comorbidities or obesity. He was young, he didn’t [have any comorbidities], and he’s not obese. It was a little alarming.”

Drawing on what little research there was on the virus at the time, and on anecdotal evidence, Drs. Babaa and Giannakopoulos and the rest of Tyler’s care team put him on multiple treatments, including convalescent plasma infusions, broad spectrum antibiotics, steroids, zinc and vitamin C.

They aimed to keep him off a ventilator at the very least and, hopefully, lead to his recovery. Medical staff had quickly learned that keeping patients off ventilators was critical. Those who had to go on them very often had severe outcomes, says Dr. Giannakopoulos, so every treatment that was available was used to keep Tyler off a ventilator.

Plasma Makes the Difference

Tyler was one of the first patients in New Jersey to get convalescent plasma infusions. With so little of it available at the time, the hospital had to apply to receive convalescent plasma. Since those early days of the virus, more has come to be understood about convalescent plasma infusions. They appear to help some patients, but not every patient.

In Tyler’s case, it fortunately helped. Slowly, he improved, and the nursing staff worked with him to regain his strength. “The nurses would tell me to do different things in bed to work out my lungs,” Tyler says. “Walking was extremely difficult at first. The nurses would help me move around since I couldn’t on my own.”

After nearly two weeks in the hospital, Tyler was discharged, but he still had a lot of recuperating to do at home. “Things you would do in your everyday life weren’t easy for me,” he says. “Walking up the steps was very difficult. I would get very light-headed from doing physical activity too fast.”

But over the summer, he continued doing the breathing exercises he learned in the hospital to increase his lung capacity, and he regained lost muscle and appetite. He left the hospital at 155 pounds; by late summer, he weighed 195 pounds and was working with a personal fitness trainer to continue rebuilding his strength. As school started in the fall of 2020, he hoped to return to Felician University in Rutherford, New Jersey, and play baseball.

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