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Health Team

Virus can cause heart disease in young

Posted July 5, 2018 5:15 p.m. EDT

— Heart failure is most common in older adults, but a viral infection can cause heart disease even in the young.

Drew Walczak was visiting friends in Asheville in January when he called his parents in Atlantic Beach to tell them he was in the hospital.

"He called and said, 'Mom, I'm going to the ER. My legs are swollen,'" Sally Walczak said.

The 20-year-old initially thought he just had a cold or the flu.

"Being from the coast, I figured that shortness of breath was just from the altitude," he said.

But physicians determined a virus had damaged his heart muscle, making it difficult to pump blood and causing the swelling in his legs.

"They said, if we had not gotten to the ER that day, he probably would have only lived a couple of days," Sally Walczak said.

Drew Walczak was later airlifted to UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill, where he was outfitted with a battery-powered LVAD, or left ventricular assist device. The controls are in a bag worn over his shoulder, connecting inside to keep the heart pumping.

Dr. Jason Katz, a cardiologist at UNC Hospitals, said the incidence of viral cardiomyopathy is not well known. There is no "gold standard" for making the diagnosis or even confirming that heart damage was caused by a virus, he said.

While coronary artery disease is more common in older adults, viral cardiomyopathy is the more common cause of heart disease in patients as young as Drew Walczak, Katz said.

Anyone with a weakened immune system is at greater risk for the viral infection, Katz said, and symptoms such as unusual fatigue, swelling of the feet or legs, shortness of breath, chest pain and lightheadedness point to the need for medical care.

The LVAD will help Drew Walczak build up strength over the next few months as he waits for a suitable heart donor.

"It was explained to us there is maybe 42 matching points for a heart transplant," said his father, Dave Walczak. "So, it's almost routine, but I'm sure it's not routine."

The Walczaks know that they are in good hands and are hopeful that Drew Walczak can enjoy a full, normal life after heart transplant recovery.

"They said that, since I'm so young, I have a really good chance, really good chance to get better," he said.