Dr. Tony Tran and COVID-19 graphic

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Most people know Dr. Tony Tran as a gastroenterologist at GI of Norman. But he has passions outside of medicine including running. In fact, Dr. Tran consistently runs a six-minute mile, a unique and impressive feat that requires speed, stamina and strength. Years of running have strengthened his heart and lungs to the point that he rarely gets winded during long runs. So when he started gasping for air during a run in mid-March, he knew something was up. 

“I had to stop because I was short winded,” Dr. Tran said. “I don’t normally stop when I’m running. So I definitely felt kind of off.”

Suspicions of COVID-19

Dr. Tran began to piece his symptoms together because in the days leading up to that run he’d also experienced chills, achiness and fatigue. Then, the day after that strange run, he had fever of 101. Dr. Tran knew the symptoms were consistent with COVID-19, but Oklahoma only had a handful of cases at that time. He called Matthew McGill with Norman Regional’s Infectious Disease department to get his opinion.

“I reached out and basically told McGill, ‘I’m not feeling well. I know this sounds crazy but I am concerned because I recently went to Colorado and spent time in a hotel that ended up having nine cases of coronavirus linked to a group visiting from Australia,’” Dr. Tran said.

Dr. Tony Tran with his wife, Nicole, in Colorado.

McGill told Dr. Tran to get a COVID-19 test and isolate himself until he received the results. Two days later he got the answer he’d been dreading: Positive. Officials with the Oklahoma State Department of Health told him to monitor his symptoms and quarantine away from the rest of his family. Having two small children at home Dr. Tran heeded their advice and took isolation and quarantine very seriously.

Sicker and Sicker

After several days of mild symptoms, his condition suddenly worsened.

“I progressively got sicker and sicker to the point that I didn’t eat for a couple of days,” Dr. Tran said.

“Every day I would wake up hoping I would start to feel better. I was getting worse and worse and that freaked me out even more because I was isolated by myself.”

At one point, he contemplated going to the emergency room but didn’t want to put his wife at risk since she’d have to drive him there and he could potentially expose her.

“So I actually had a friend bring an oxygen tank to my house and drop it off outside,” Dr. Tran said. “I just wasn’t getting better. I wasn’t eating and got to the point I couldn’t walk up a flight of stairs.”

Dr. Tran kept open communication with all his friends and colleagues who helped him navigate through the myriad of symptoms of COVID-19.

 “I have friends who are ER doctors and they would call and check in on me. Dr. Michael Porter here in Norman texted me several times and was available to me" he said.

Turning the Corner

Dr. Tran’s wife, who is also a physician, was there to help. She grew concerned when his condition began to deteriorate. She came up with a plan and drew a line in the sand.

“It was a Thursday night. If I wasn’t feeling better by Friday morning we were going to the ER. Fortunately, that’s when I finally turned the corner. I didn’t feel good, but I felt things turn around," he said.

It was the beginning of a long road to recovery for Dr. Tran who felt the effects of the virus for several weeks. When he finally got back to trying his workout routines, which included 4-5 days a week of high intensity interval training, he continued to have trouble with his breathing.

“My wife, being a cardiologist, felt my symptoms were lingering and I needed to have some sort of lab testing and some sort of imaging. So, I actually got an echocardiogram of my heart and lab testing,” Dr. Tran said.

Lab and Echocardigram Results

The tests revealed the lingering effects of COVID-19: An ejection fraction in the upper 40% range which represented a significant drop in his heart’s ability to pump blood out with each contraction. For someone in his age range, a normal ejection fraction would have been around 55-65%.

“So there definitely seems to be some sort of damage to my heart from the virus impact so I have to get a repeat echocardiogram in 3-6 months,” Dr. Tran said.

The bloodwork also showed an abnormality: Elevated liver enzymes. Typically, elevated liver enzymes indicate inflammation or damage to the cells in the liver. Anything above 40 is abnormal.

“Mine were in the 90s range which is very abnormal for me. I’m usually in the teens or 20s. They’ve seen elevated liver enzymes with COVID-19 in the 200-500 range. So the thought is that when I had the labs done we were catching them coming back down to normal and actually improving, he said.

Plasma Donation

Not all the lab tests were bad. During this recovery, other tests revealed that Dr. Tran was positive for antibodies against the virus. The state was short on tests and labs did not have access to the antibodies which were crucial in building tests to help diagnose others. This need allowed Dr. Tran to donate his plasma in an effort to help other COVID-19 patients get diagnosed.

“I feel the crucial piece that made a difference was early detection. Also, many people who are diagnosed feel ashamed and that makes them not want to tell anyone or possibly deny they may have it. I encourage everyone to have open communication with your friends and family, and then isolate and quarantine to protect those around you. I think these steps helped protect my wife and children.”

It’s been nearly two months since being diagnosed with COVID-19 and Dr. Tran is feeling more like his old self. He still can’t run a six-minute mile, but he’s getting a little bit closer every day.

Drs. Tony and Nicole Tran after a race.