In preparation for a visit to his family, Riley Behrens was quaranting at home to make sure he’d be COVID-19-free for the trip. He took a test to be absolutely sure that he didn’t have the coronavirus and was stunned when the test came back positive. At the time, he had no symptoms. But his relatively mild case turned out to be anything but when he experienced a mini-stroke a few days after his symptoms began.
“I had chest pain and shortness of breath, which, at that point, I didn't really think was too bad,” Behrens, 23, of Tempe, Arizona told TODAY. “I woke up with (my) left side weakened. So, my whole left side — like from my eye being spotty down to I couldn't stand on one leg because of the weakness, and my grip strength decreased.”
Doctors told Behrens he had a transient ischemic attack (TIA), aka a mini stroke, caused by a temporary blockage of blood flow to the brain. After his experience, he shared a thread on Twitter to urge others to wear masks, social distance and follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations.
“Not taking this pandemic seriously? Keep reading,” he wrote in the thread that has been liked more than 150,000 times. “I went from feeling mild symptoms to full hospitalization in less than 48 hours. My O2 levels dropped, so I was given supplemental oxygen and steroid pills.”
A mild break from COVID-19 precautions
Behrens — who studies government affairs and international relations through online courses at Harvard University — had been taking the pandemic pretty seriously, wearing masks and social distancing and then he began a strict quarantine so he could visit his family in San Francisco.
Then a friend called asking for a place to crash after losing his housing. Behrens asked if he had been anywhere, but his friend said no. So Behrens allowed him to come stay with him. When Behrens tested positive the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, he asked his friend again if he had been anywhere and he admitted he had attended a wedding.
“I can’t hold a grudge against him,” Behrens said.
Behrens immediately canceled his flight and prepared to isolate. The day after he received the test results, he started experiencing some shortness of breath and chest pain. But it wasn’t too worrisome.
“I have exercise-induced asthma … and it felt less than that,” he explained. “I didn’t really think it was a big deal. I wasn’t worried.”
So, he hoped that he’d simply have a mild case of COVID-19 and be over with it. Then he woke up on Saturday with troubling symptoms.
“I called my dad and was like, ‘Hey I don’t really feel too good. My left side is weak,’ and my dad is like, ‘I don’t like the way that sounds,’” Behrens said. “So, I called my doctor. He was like, ‘No, that's not good. You should go to the ER now.’”
After a bunch of tests, doctors learned that Behrens had a TIA, which was a huge shock to the rugby player who was regularly running 80 minutes during a match.
“COVID-19 is unpredictable. You don’t know how your body is going to react,” he said. “It was scary because I’m 23 and I’m used to being able to play 240 minutes of rugby.”
While doctors released him from the hospital on the evening on Nov. 30 when he could walk, Behrens still gets winded easily, feels dizzy, has a weak grip in his left hand and has about 60% vision in his left eye.
There has been research showing a relationship between the coronavirus and increased risk of stroke. Doctors have reported an unusual amount of blood clotting in COVID-19 patients, which raises the risk of deep vein thrombosis, strokes and heart attacks. There are also neurological symptoms: One study published in July found a high incidence of acute disseminated encephalomyelitis among COVID-19 patients. This can lead to to vision loss, weakness to the point of paralysis and difficulty coordinating muscle movements, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.
“Most people think of that dizziness is like spinning. It's more like being on a boat,” he said. “It's kind of like you lost your balance and (are) rocking back and forth.”
He said doctors told him TIAs normally resolve within 24 hours. But because his TIA seems to be linked to the COVID-19 infection, his outcome is uncertain.
“The hope is the symptoms keep improving,” Behrens said. “This is really new and so much is unknown and that’s what's scarier than anything. I can live with the symptoms if I know what's going on, but I don't know. The TIA Increases the risk of a major stroke, so am I going to have a major stroke?”
‘This is real’
While rugby is out for a while, Behrens is disappointed that he cannot play the piano, which he's loved since learning as a child. Being unable to put his left fingers on the keys felt like a devastating loss.
“I got home and tried to play the piano. I started crying. The piano has been such a big part of me and I could not play it,” he said. “This is another testament to just how serious COVID is.”
That’s what Behrens hopes people understand when hearing about his experience with the virus.
“I just want people to realize that this is real,” he said. “There are basic things that some people aren’t doing … It’s time to start.”