A Las Vegas woman who experienced what has been described as a “one in a million” reaction to the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine has returned home to continue her recovery after spending more than three months in a Southern California hospital.
Emma Burkey, 18, who experienced one of the first and few known cases of blood clots in the brain after receiving the J&J vaccine, is back home with her family, who are preparing to sell their house, which is not wheelchair accessible.
“Emma is in good spirits,” said Bret Johnson, a spokesman for the family.
“All her mental capacities and personality came back,” he said, describing Emma as “cheerful but reserved, friendly and smart.”
However, she continues to struggle with impaired function on the left side of her body.
“She can’t walk right now. They’re working, working, working with her on that, but her left leg is not cooperating, and her left side is not very cooperative,” including her arm and hand, said Johnson, president and founder of The Hastening, a Las Vegas-based Christian ministry where Emma’s father, Russ, volunteers.
Blood clot investigation
Emma became ill days after receiving the single-dose J&J or Janssen shot on March 20. She began to have seizures and was hospitalized on March 30 at St. Rose Dominican Hospital, Siena campus in Henderson. The medical team there suspected she was having a vaccine-related side effect, though at the time the vaccine had not been linked to the rare blood clots. The team notified U.S. health regulators, at first receiving scant response.
On April 13, the federal government suspended the use of the J&J shot after identifying the blood clots accompanied by low platelet counts in a half-dozen women in the U.S.
The women, between the ages of 18 and 48, within a week or two of vaccination experienced cerebral venous sinus thrombosis, where clots occur in veins that drain blood from the brain. At the time, about 7 million doses of the single-dose J&J vaccine had been administered in the U.S.
On April 20, U.S. health officials lifted the suspension, saying the benefits of the single-dose vaccine outweighed the risks.
They did so with a note of caution. “Women younger than 50 years old especially should be aware of the rare but increased risk of this adverse event and that there are other COVID-19 vaccine options available for which this risk has not been seen,” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says on the agency’s website. Neither of the other two vaccines authorized in the U.S., Pfizer and Moderna, has been associated with the side effect.
Emma experienced several strokes and underwent multiple brain surgeries as a result of the blood clots.
At home, she will continue with intensive physical therapy on an outpatient basis, Johnson said, with the top priority being for her to walk again.
“If she can relearn how to walk, that is a game changer,” Johnson said. If she can’t, that has “just massive implications.”
Meanwhile, her parents are preparing their house to sell. A two-story home with the bedrooms upstairs, it is not suitable for Emma, who uses a wheelchair. Emma’s parents take her to the home of friend, who has a wheelchair accessible bath and shower, to bathe.
For Emma’s parents, Russ and Kathy, who have declined interview requests, the experience keeps them on a roller coaster of emotion.
“When you go through a crisis like this, you have all those typical things that happen,” Johnson said. “You have shock and you have anger and you have grief and you have hope, and … you can see any of those at any one point during any one day.
“So, there’s some hope in the morning, and then there’s anger in the afternoon. … And then there’s grief and weeping at 5 o’clock in the afternoon when when the reality of some of these things hits.”
There is also pride in Emma for all that she has accomplished during her recovery, Johnson said, as well as gratitude to the medical personnel and staff who have cared for her.
The family is also grateful, Johnson said, to those that have shown their concern them by supporting a GoFundMe campaign that has raised nearly $62,000 to offset medical and other expenses.
Many of those who have contributed to the online fundraising effort have also posted messages to the family.
“She may be one in a million but she’s your one,” wrote Joan Marshall, who contributed $40. “I will continue to pray for your beautiful daughter.”