LOS ANGELES (KABC) -- February is a time we remind men and women not to ignore their heart health, but because of COVID-19, these reminders are more important than ever.
Doctors say coronavirus can damage your heart and you may not even know it.
One Highland woman is still trying to recover a year and a half later.
"It's a huge shock that a virus could do this to me," said Regina Juarez.
In June 2020, the 56-year-old was healthy. She was a full-time health care worker when COVID struck.
READ ALSO | 'Broken heart' cases surge during COVID, especially among women
"There was no vaccine at the time," she said. After two weeks, Juarez thought she was better, but suddenly, her health took a turn.
"I went back to the emergency room with chest pain and shortness of breath again," she said.
An MRI revealed COVID had damaged her heart. Now, 20 months later, she continues to struggle.
"I can do up to a point and then I have to stop because I start having chest pain. I can just feel the exhaustion coming on," Juarez said.
Dr. Purvi Parwani, the director of the COVID-19 Heart Clinic at Loma Linda University Health, says long COVID heart symptoms occur in 10% to 30% of patients. This tends to affect women more, who end up dealing with chest pain, fatigue and erratic heart rhythms.
"A majority of our patients in the COVID-19 clinic are the patients that have had a mild COVID infection or maybe they have had asymptomatic COVID," said Parwani.
Many had trouble getting a diagnosis.
"These symptoms are real. We have identified in many patients now that the symptoms do exist," Parwani said.
Most patients take about six months to recover and treatment is all about strengthening the heart.
"I still recommend all the patients to do quite a bit of diet and lifestyle changes, said Parwani. "There are some breathing exercises that may help these patients to increase their functional capacity, and most of the patients that I see in COVID heart clinic are unvaccinated patients."
New studies show being vaccinated can greatly reduce your chances of getting long COVID symptoms. That's one way to protect your heart, and Juarez has a specific message for women who are always putting themselves last.
"You spend so much time caring for them, you run out of time to do your own exercise and your own quiet time and self-meditation and all the things that matter to our hearts," Juarez said.