Las Vegas teenager learns to walk again after rare vaccine reaction


Emma Burkey, who suffered a devastating brain injury after receiving the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine, spends most of her waking hours trying to get better.

Las Vegan, 19, spends five or more hours most days undergoing therapy to relearn how to walk and improve fine motor skills in his hands, a function lost after a series of strokes caused by a blood clot in his brain.

Burkey has come a long way. When she came out of a medically induced coma, she couldn’t speak, move, or even blink.

“At the very beginning, when I was in the hospital, I literally couldn’t move anything,” Burkey recalled on Wednesday. “And my parents didn’t even know I was there, that I wasn’t a vegetable, until I stuck my tongue out” to answer yes or no to questions.

Now, 10 and a half months after his hospitalization on March 30, Burkey’s mind and word are clear, his sly sense of humor intact. Function in her hands improved until she could eat a sandwich but not so much that she could type.

Much of his therapy is focused on recovering his ability to walk. Using a special cane and a heavy leg brace, she was able to take a record 288 steps during a therapy session on Wednesday.

“It’s not the prettiest thing you’ve ever seen,” she said of walking with a can or a walker. “But I can do it. So I would prefer to be able to do it without those things.

Yet walking is not his top priority. What she wants most is to be able to hold a baby in her arms again.

“There’s nothing like being able to hold a baby in your arms. But I want to walk – just to be clear,” she said with a laugh.

Risk of rare reaction

Before falling ill, Burkey, who was in his senior year of high school, volunteered at his church’s nursery and also worked as a nanny. Because she worked with babies and children, who were not eligible to be vaccinated against COVID-19, she wanted to get vaccinated herself in order to protect them from the virus.

A few days after being injected with the single-dose vaccine on March 20, she had nausea and vomiting, symptoms she thought were a harmless side effect of the vaccine. After a violent headache followed by a seizure, her parents took her to the hospital.

Doctors found a blood clot in his brain, along with low platelets, which are the blood cells that help form clots. The medical team at St. Rose Dominican Hospital, Siena Campus, suspected her condition was a rare reaction to the vaccine.

The condition – thrombosis with thrombocytopenia syndrome, or TTS – had not previously been linked to the J&J vaccine. But it had been connected to a similar COVID-19 vaccine by AstraZeneca used in other countries.

Dr. Brian Lipman told the Review-Journal in May that the hospital’s medical team had urgently sought advice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Food and Drug Administration and Johnson & Johnson on how to to treat their young patient for a condition they had never seen before and which had not been reported in the United States. They also wanted regulators to issue a warning, so convinced were they that Burkey was experiencing an adverse reaction to the vaccine.

Lipman said the team heard from the CDC more than a week after Burkey was admitted to the hospital and the day before federal regulators called for a pause in vaccine use. His case was one of six that prompted federal regulators in mid-April to suspend use of the J&J vaccine pending further review.

The suspension was lifted 10 days later after regulators determined that the benefits of the vaccine outweighed its risks.

“But when you’re the risk, it’s a very different experience,” said Burkey, who has had three brain surgeries.

As more vaccine data emerged, the CDC made the unusual decision in December to recommend the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines over the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Until then, health regulators had treated all three vaccines equally, stressing that all offered strong protection against COVID-19.

“In most situations, Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna COVID-19 vaccines are preferred over J&J/Janssen COVID-19 vaccine for primary and booster vaccination due to risk of serious adverse events,” the CDC states on its website.

As of Feb. 3, more than 18.2 million doses of the J&J/Janssen COVID-19 vaccine have been administered in the United States, according to the CDC. Regulators have identified 57 confirmed reports of people who received the vaccine and later developed TTS and nine deaths caused or directly attributed to the disease.

“Women ages 30 to 49, in particular, should be aware of the increased risk of this rare adverse event,” the CDC said.

Burkey would like to see the J&J vaccine taken off the market. Although she does not oppose vaccination against COVID-19, she believes that it should not be compulsory and that any risks must be clarified.

Defy the odds

After several days at Henderson Hospital, Burkey was airlifted in April to a hospital in Loma Linda, Calif., for more specialized care. Her parents, Kathy and Russ, stayed at Loma Linda while their daughter was in the hospital undergoing intensive rehabilitation. The three returned to Las Vegas in July.

At every stage of his recovery, Burkey has defied odds, first by surviving, then by relatively short stays in hospital and a rehabilitation center, and now by his continuous improvement.

She hopes to resume her plans to go to college, where she wanted to study early childhood development. She now hopes to upgrade to become a pediatric physical therapist.

Throughout her grueling ordeal, Burkey said she was sustained by her Christian faith and the support of her parents.

The family sold their home to rent a one-storey house that is better suited for wheelchairs and will soon be moving again, Kathy Burkey said. Emma’s medical bills alone are $2.5-3 million. The family has medical insurance, but many costs are not covered, including those related to complementary therapy, some medical equipment and maintenance of the wheelchair.

The family do not expect to receive compensation for Emma’s injuries after a lawyer dropped their case. The Public Preparedness and Emergency Preparedness Act protects vaccine manufacturers from liability in the event of a public health emergency.

“We’re never going to retire,” said Kathy Burkey, who co-owns a carpentry business while her husband is a day trader. The couple, who also have a son in college, are in their 50s.

The mother worries about the ongoing care her daughter will need and how she will manage without her parents.

“We’re not going to be here forever,” she said.

Contact Mary Hynes at [email protected] or 702-383-0336. To follow @MaryHynes1 on Twitter.


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