On a late July day, the air at Lyon Oaks County Park in Wixom, Michigan, was thick and warm, the kind that makes it hard to breathe.
Matthew Burris stepped onto the soccer field with his new teammates, the Michigan Jaguars.
The 13-year-old had to switch teams in the spring, when COVID-19 left him unable to keep up. He went from being a consistent starter for a tier 1 premier soccer league to a player who barely left the bench.
He held an albuterol inhaler to his lips and drew in a long breath.
“I just do this before every practice now,” he said. “After COVID, I couldn’t run very far without being very tired. … It was embarrassing.”
The virus swept through the Burris family in January, before any of them could get a vaccine.
“We opened our bubble up to just one person,” said his mother, Krystal Burris.
Initially, Matthew had minor symptoms – a headache, some fatigue. “Of the five of us, he had the mildest case,” said his father, Jon Burris.
It wasn’t until Matthew tried to play basketball in late January that his dad noticed something had changed. The kid who was always a top finisher in any foot race was finishing last. He told his dad, “I just don’t feel right.’ ”
At first, they chalked it up to weeks of inactivity because of pandemic restrictions. But when it persisted on the soccer field, Matthew’s father said, “I knew something wasn’t right.”
Jon described the game in May when his son was running as hard as he could, then collapsed on the field.
“He put his hands on top of his head, like he was struggling to get air,” Jon said. “I went over to the sideline. There were a couple of coaches there, and the one coach said to me: ‘Something’s wrong. He’s not breathing right. And I said, ‘Well, yeah.’ ”
They took Matthew to the University of Michigan’s Pediatric Post-COVID Syndrome Clinic, where he was treated by Dr. Marc Hershenson, a pediatric pulmonologist.
Hershenson ran a battery of tests to look for inflammatory post-COVID-19 complications, along with blood clots, heart and lung complications. He discovered Matthew’s lungs had been damaged by the virus.
The boy’s airflow was down at the same time he was trapping too much air in his lungs, Hershenson said, something that happens to people with asthma.
“COVID can not only cause, or flare up asthma, it can also damage the airways and lead to sort of a chronic infection of some of the airways,” the doctor said.
With a long-acting corticosteroid inhaler, an albuterol rescue inhaler and time, Matthew began to get better. Soccer has been going well, and he’s not experiencing shortness of breath or chest pain on the field like he did before.
In late August, he sat inside a clear-walled box at C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital with a blue plastic clip pinching his nostrils shut. He wrapped his lips around the mouthpiece of a spirometry machine and breathed in quickly and deeply. Then, as his therapist directed, he exhaled as forcefully as he could.
His results were close to normal but still fell a little short, Hershenson said.
“It looks like you do have a bit of asthma now,” he told Matthew.
Jon said it’s a relief that his son is breathing easier, but it has been an uncomfortable adjustment.
“I would just say, for the naysayers, it’s real,” he said. “The reality is, maybe he’ll never be the same, and that’s tough.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Michigan athlete Matthew Burris, 13, suffers asthma from long COVID