Marietta lawmaker's son battling rare COVID-related heart condition

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Hunter Riggall, Marietta Daily Journal, Ga.
·7 min read
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Mar. 26—MARIETTA — Albert Reeves likes playing T-ball and banging on the drum set Santa brought him last Christmas. His favorite TV show is Ninjago (based on LEGO ninja characters). His favorite color is blue, or green, or maybe golden, he's not quite sure. He has a lively character and a thick mop of blond hair. By any outside indication, Albert — the son of state Rep. Bert Reeves, R-Marietta — is a happy, normal, 5-year-old boy.

But on the inside, Albert's heart is sick. And COVID-19 is to blame.

"He functions like a normal kid, but his heart is sick right now," Bert Reeves said. "His heart is sick, and we do not know what the cure is."

In February, six months after Albert's pediatrician noticed he had an irregular heartbeat, a cardiac MRI confirmed Albert has borderline myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart.

"The results were borderline, similar to others who have undergone cardiac MRIs secondary to COVID infections," Albert's pediatric cardiologist, Dr. Jonathan Yaari, said.

Bert Reeves has sought to keep his private life private. However, he and his wife Amy feel that "maybe Albert's story can help create awareness, and help reiterate into people's minds, the seriousness of the virus, and how it affects people and how it affects children," he said.

Amy Reeves, a pediatrician's assistant who works in west Cobb, has seen firsthand the worrying trend of parents skipping check-ups for their kids during the pandemic. The couple hopes too that Albert's condition leads parents to ensure their children receive regular check-ups.

COVID-associated myocarditis has gotten the most attention in the context of college athletics, but the condition has also appeared in small children, albeit in rare cases. Still, it's a serious condition, one that doctors don't fully understand. The medicine Albert's doctors have prescribed, the beta-blocker propranolol, has produced mixed results.

"Most of the pediatric literature regarding COVID-19's cardiac manifestations discusses patients hospitalized with a multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C)," Yaari said, adding that while arrhythmias are uncommon among COVID-19 patients, they have been noted more often among infected children than in the general pediatric population.

In general, children have not been severely affected by COVID-19.

"That said, cardiac complications of COVID in the pediatric population have been well-documented," Yaari said, adding that it is more common in children with congenital heart disease and those who have undergone cardiac surgery.

Doctors don't yet know why some children suffer these effects, while others have no symptoms.

"We are living this real time with you, we do not know what the prognosis is," Amy Reeves said.

Albert is an otherwise healthy child and never had any COVID-19 symptoms. After the irregular heartbeat was noticed at a doctor's visit, he received a positive PCR test result and later tested positive for COVID-19 antibodies. Curiously, while doctors believe Albert contracted the virus sometime last July, it didn't spread within the Reeves household. That, along with Albert's condition, are just some of the "mysteries of COVID," doctors have told his parents.

Dr. Larry Clements, Albert's pediatrician, ordered an electrocardiogram (EKG) immediately after noticing Albert's heart was experiencing persistent premature ventricular contractions.

As Yaari put it, "PVCs are extra heartbeats from the heart's bottom chambers, typically benign unless they are too frequent (more than 15% of total heartbeats)."

Albert wore a Holter monitor, a portable device attached to his torso that records heart activity, for 24 hours.

The results found 27% of Albert's heart beats were irregular. He was prescribed propranolol, which drove the percentage down to 16%, then down to less than 5% by December. The family was relieved, feeling they had at least brought the condition under control. But by February, they went in for a pre-op ahead of the cardiac MRI. The irregular beats had shot back up — they were "back at square 1," Bert Reeves said.

An EKG during the week of March 7 found between 50-60% of Albert's heartbeats were irregular.

"We're going in the wrong direction right now," Bert Reeves said. "And it's terrifying."

Albert doesn't show any signs when his heart rhythms become more irregular. Amy Reeves said that a child's smaller body and cardiovascular system means the irregular beats are not as consequential as they are in adults, who may have issues with blood not circulating completely around the body. The condition is not sustainable in the long term, however.

"Thank goodness Albert does not have any cardiac dysfunction," Yaari said. "Despite his extra heartbeats' frequency, there has been no evidence of any particularly fast or dangerous rhythms from the lower chamber of his heart. Remarkably, he has also remained asymptomatic."

Employing an automotive metaphor, "the engine's running higher RPMs than it's designed to," Bert Reeves said. "It can do that now. We don't know at what point it will start to affect (Albert)."

Albert's doctors upped his propranolol dosage and are considering other options. His parents worry about other medications the doctors have referred to as more "toxic." They could cause significant side effects, solving one problem while creating another. Yaari said a stronger medication will likely be needed to bring the condition under control. Albert is being referred to an electrophysiology specialist.

"With time, we are learning more about the novel COVID-19 virus and its effect on the heart," Yaari said. "For now, we are thankful that cases like Albert's are rare, though very real, and continued caution per CDC guidelines is strongly recommended."

As for Albert's feelings, his parents said at his age, he's not able to process the situation fully. He knows he had COVID-19, and that it affected his heart. He's been good about taking his meds and handled it as well as they could have hoped. He's still their "little firecracker."

"It's the most helpless feeling that you can imagine. Because all you really want in life is, you just want your kids to be okay," Bert Reeves said.

Albert has continued going to school, and his parents aren't worried about possible reinfection. They praised Albert's teachers at the Emily Lembeck Early Learning Center for their vigilance and expressed their support for Marietta Schools Superintendent Grant Rivera. The debate over schools being open has been one of the hardest balancing acts the state has faced, Bert Reeves said.

"There's a lot of students that, for the last year, haven't learned a thing," Bert Reeves said. "And that is going to impact their lives."

In his capacity as a legislator, Reeves said Albert's condition has given him a unique perspective at the Capitol. His colleagues are aware of Albert's condition — Reeves said it's given him the ability to build consensus in COVID-19 discussions.

As issues like masking have become politicized, Reeves said it bothers him that many people have been cavalier about safety.

"All I can say to them is, 'I sure hope that you don't go through what we're going through,'" he said.

He went on, adding that "some people consider this an infringement on their liberties. But I will tell you that having gone through what we've gone through, has made me unwilling to entertain that perspective."

Amy Reeves said people ought to mask up not because of rules, but because it's the right thing to do.

"It's how you care for other people. And it's how you get this virus under some sort of control," she said.

The best way to get the country back to normal, public health authorities say, is by having as many people vaccinated as possible. Rep. Reeves encourages everyone to get their shot, which, starting Thursday, is available to all adult Georgians.

Despite a lack of evidence, rumors about vaccines being harmful have taken root. But the virus itself has produced, in some cases, long-term effects such as respiratory issues and neurological issues. And as with Albert, cardiac issues.

"I would much rather roll the dice on getting this vaccine than ever, you know, ever contracting COVID," Amy Reeves said.