Sept. 6, 2022

Unravelling the mysteries of ‘long COVID’

Master’s student receives scholarships for her research
Rashmin Hira with her lab
Rashmin Hira (back, far right) pictured with a study participant and members of her lab, including her supervisor Dr. Satish Raj.

Rashmin Hira’s passion for helping others is what motivates her to excel in her studies.  

A master’s student under the supervision of Dr. Satish Raj, MD, and Dr. Robert Sheldon, MD, Hira’s research project focuses on the impacts of long COVID on the cardiovascular autonomic system. 

Hira recently received two scholarships with a combined value of more than $30,000 including an Alberta Graduate Excellence Scholarship, given to recognize outstanding academic achievement.

“This is a big deal for me,” says Hira. “It’s humbling to be recognized for my work.”

Raj is proud of his student’s work.

“Rashmin has really led this important work,” he says. “She has worked very hard and has many skills that make her well suited to clinical research.”

As part of her research, Hira works with individuals with long COVID, ages 18-72, to better understand the prevalence of cardiovascular autonomic system disturbances, such as problems maintaining heart rate and blood pressure and flow. She is also exploring the impact the condition has on their lives, including quality of life, financial and social aspects.

Patients are considered to have long COVID if their symptoms persist for 12 weeks or more following an infection. These symptoms can be varied, but often include fatigue, light-headedness, shortness of breath, heartbeat disturbances and difficulties with memory and concentration.

According to Hira, symptoms that persist after a COVID-19 infection are often like those experienced by patients with autonomic conditions such as postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS) and chronic fatigue syndrome. In fact, it’s possible that a COVID-19 infection may trigger these conditions.

To conduct her work, Hira performs several tests on study participants, including testing their body’s ability to maintain blood pressure (orthostatic intolerance) by having them stand after lying for several minutes.

Early on, Hira notes she has learned that patients of any age, even those who experienced “mild” COVID-19 infections or who were healthy prior to their infection, can develop persistent symptoms. She adds that more than 70 per cent of the participants in her study have at least one problem with their cardiovascular autonomic system.

Disturbingly, some of her study participants say it can be difficult to get people to believe they are experiencing symptoms that make it difficult for them to work or live a normal life.

“You can look at them and think ‘they are perfectly fine,’ but what you don’t see is how debilitating these symptoms can be,” says Hira.

Working directly with patients and unravelling the mysteries of long COVID are two aspects Hira loves about her work. These dual passions were ignited during her undergrad, during which Hira earned two degrees: a BSc in Biological Sciences and a BA in Sociology, both at the University of Calgary.

Hira’s well-rounded education has given her a unique perspective on academic research, a career she hopes to continue to pursue.

“In research, we have to consider a person as a whole – all of their life experiences, their backgrounds and their unique characteristics,” says Hira. 

Raj is hopeful that a broader understanding of the impacts of long COVID on cardiovascular autonomics, and knowing how common they are, may help health care providers direct patients towards treatments.

“Ultimately, the goal is to help improve quality of life for individuals who are suffering,” he says.

Dr. Satish Raj, MD, is a professor in the Department of Cardiac Sciences at the Cumming School of Medicine and a member of the Libin Cardiovascular Institute.