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Teen fights to walk again after rare COVID vaccine side effect

Updated October 13, 2021 - 6:13 am

Emma Burkey, a young Las Vegas woman recovering from a rare but devastating COVID-19 vaccine side effect, is undergoing nearly 30 hours of physical therapy each week as she fights to regain her ability to walk.

Burkey, 18, had seizures, strokes and blood clots in her brain after receiving a shot of the Johnson &Johnson COVID-19 vaccine in late March. Her case was one of half a dozen that prompted federal regulators in mid-April to suspend use of the J&J vaccine for 10 days, pending a review that concluded the benefits of the single-dose vaccine outweighed the slight risk of blood clots.

Although her progress has been remarkable, Burkey has a long way to go, said family spokesman Bret Johnson, president and founder of The Hastening, a Las Vegas-based Christian ministry.

“Her left side is still very damaged. Her hand withers up,” Johnson said Tuesday. “They’re working on these things.”

Burkey has begun therapy sessions in a pool. An Oct. 9 update on a GoFundMe page set up for her describes one such session.

“On Sunday she had a cold but successful water therapy session,” the update states. “She also for the first time took the stairs out of the pool, with a ton of assistance but still. We didn’t know if she was ever going to take stairs again and God works through another miracle.

“We also in answer to prayer found a heated pool to use in the winter months. Please pray for weekly access to this facility … right now it is only monthly.”

On land, a custom orthotic device for her ankle has helped to stabilize her foot, allowing her to take steps with assistance.

“Emma has walked here at the house, twice since our last update, for about 100 feet,” according to a Sept. 29 update on a GoFundMe page established to help the family pay her medical bills. “Only about 75 percent her but at times she can string together 2-4 steps that are 100 percent her effort and balance. Makes us very hopeful for her future.”

The family recently sold their house and moved into a rental a few doors down that has bedrooms on the first floor and can better accommodate a wheelchair.

“Her custom power wheelchair chair finally was delivered,” an update states. “All paid for through the insurance, a God-sized miracle, no less a miracle than any of His other miracles.”

Johnson said that Burkey has greatly improved since early in her recovery, when she blinked to communicate.

“The great thing is her personality, mental capacity, verbal communication is all great,” he said. “Those things are fantastic, but her ability to walk and her motor functions, especially on her left side, are still not anywhere where they need to be. So she’s pretty much confined to a wheelchair or her couch.”

Rare side effect

Burkey was first treated at St. Rose Dominican Hospital, Siena campus, in Henderson, before being airlifted for specialized care at Loma Linda University Medical Center in Southern California, where she was treated for three months.

Her medical team at St. Rose reported to federal regulators their suspicions that her condition might be a rare reaction to the vaccine, though regulators had yet to establish any link at that time. The condition is called thrombosis with thrombocytopenia syndrome (TTS), which involves blood clots with low platelets.

As of Sept. 29, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration had identified 47 confirmed reports of the condition in people who got the J&J vaccine, according to the CDC. More than 14.9 million doses of the J&J vaccine have been administered in the U.S.

“Women younger than 50 years old especially should be aware of the rare but increased risk of this adverse event,” since it has primarily affected younger women, the CDC states on its website.

Two confirmed cases of the condition also have been reported following inoculation with the Moderna vaccine. More than 376 million Moderna doses have been given.

“Based on available data, there is not an increased risk for TTS after mRNA COVID-19 vaccination,” the CDC states, referring to the technology behind the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, which differs from that of the J&J vaccine.

‘Kid without a care’

A new concern for the Burkey family is that a recent MRI identified slight bleeding in Emma’s brain. An update states that “her bleed is really just a trickle and healing but not there yet.”

In this trying time, Johnson said the Burkey family is grateful for the community’s support, including contributions to the GoFundMe account that has raised nearly $64,360 for Emma’s care.

They, too, are grateful for special moments.

“Emma has had a couple of important days,” an Aug. 25 update states. “On Saturday she went to the Jonas Brothers concert (3rd row) and was just a kid without a care. She needed that.”

Contact Mary Hynes at mhynes@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0336. Follow @MaryHynes1 on Twitter.

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