One Tuesday last month I found myself strapped to a stretcher in the wind the tarmac at a small airport outside the mountain town of Mammoth Lakes, Calif., a standard face mask concealing the oxygen tubes lodged in my nostrils and a hint of tightness in the center of my chest. A team of paramedics was preparing to put me on a small medical plane to fly over Lake Tahoe to a hospital in Reno, Nevada. An IV was in my arm, and I tried not to think about the fact that for the next 45 minutes or so, I wouldn’t be able to ask a nurse for morphine in case the chest pain returned. I did my best to have a chat, joking that it wasn’t really a vacation. One of the doctors, upon finding out I was working for a magazine in New York, half-joked that at least now I had something to write.
The trip was meant to be part of a tiptoe back to normalcy. The previous Thursday, April 15, I had received my second dose of the Moderna vaccine, and my initially mild sense of relief had calcified into the feeling that I was home free. (A quick Google search for “Can I drink alcohol after the COVID vaccine?” Suggested that I was not alone.) My girlfriend, Ellie, and I were planning to leave this next Sunday for some two week vacation for my parents’ vacation home to Mammoth Lakes where we planned to work remotely and hike in our free time. Even when the anticipated flu-like symptoms from the second dose hit hard the next day, they felt like a small hurdle to overcome at the end of a long year.
Side effects came and went, but I continued to have bouts of pain in which inevitable tightness emanated from the center of my chest, building up steadily over the course of an hour or so before dissipating. When the tension returned in the hours leading up to our flight to California, I dismissed it as anxiety-related, and Ellie and I continued with our travel plans. We were within an hour of the five hour drive from LAX to Mammoth when the pain returned more severe than before. We pulled over to stop at an emergency care clinic outside of Los Angeles, where a nurse practitioner assured me that at 26, I was probably too young to have a heart attack. When my vital signs checked in as usual, we optimistically continued our way to the mountains and spent that first night in Mammoth feeling safe on the assumption that whatever was hurting me would resolve itself. during our stay.
At six o’clock the next morning, I found myself twisting in bed, looking in vain for a position that could ease the pain, at which point Ellie insisted I go to the emergency room. Born and raised New Yorker, she doesn’t exactly describe herself as a confident driver, so I drove us, holding the steering wheel in one hand and my chest in the other, while trying to convince myself that I didn’t. not a heart attack. Upon admission to the emergency room, I explained my symptoms through gritted teeth, sweating on a cot in the suffocating facility because the doctors quickly upgraded my pain reliever to fentanyl. As they performed tests that included a chest x-ray and an echocardiogram, I couldn’t help but wonder if the hospital was better equipped to treat ATV injuries than anything I was going through. There was no internal cardiologist, but the attending physician voluntarily stayed several hours after the end of his shift to see a Reno-based one, who ruled out a heart attack before assessing alternative possibilities for myocarditis. (inflammation of the heart muscle) or coronary vasospasm (sudden constriction of the coronary arteries). By this point my visit had turned into an overnight stay and Ellie had called in for reinforcements in the form of my friend Austin, who had driven overnight from LA to Mammoth.
When the hospital’s head doctor ordered me to be sent to Reno the next morning, a team of paramedics loaded me into an ambulance, drove me to the local airport, and took me to the local airport. flown to Nevada. Reno promised a team of cardiologists to help determine my diagnosis, but this turned out to be less than clarifying. The doctors scheduled me to have an angiogram almost immediately and began to prepare for the catheterization right after I arrived. Now alone (Ellie and Austin were still arriving from Mammoth), my anxiety worsened and a nurse kindly reminded me that I would only be given partial anesthesia for the procedure, which meant I would be awake, even clear-headed. All the big questions of the past day were spinning in my head: Why was I in the hospital with a heart problem at 26? Why couldn’t the doctors give me a clear answer as to what it was?
In my remaining 24 hours at Reno Hospital, I received conflicting responses on all of the above. Prior to my angiogram, the doctor overseeing the procedure said he intended to report my case to the FDA as a potential “adverse event” in response to the vaccine, adding that the time of my illness was near the second dose. was suspect but that investigations would take some time. Meanwhile, another doctor dismissed the possibility outright, instead pointing to the fact that I have smoked marijuana in the past without further elucidating this theory. Confirming their diagnosis of vasospasm, the doctors prescribed me a calcium channel blocker and nitroglycerin (to be taken as needed) and sent me away. After spending a night in a Reno hotel and winning $ 20 at the house casino on the only bet I placed, Ellie, Austin and I went to a friend’s house in San Francisco, where I spent the days followers in paranoia, convinced that every occasional hint of chest pain would bring me back to the hospital.
Eager to follow up with a cardiologist back in New York – and now fully convinced the vacation was irrecoverable – we delayed our flight. I managed to find an appointment the following week with a cardiologist, who reviewed my already exhaustive tests and ordered a cardiac MRI, which helped him decide on the initial diagnosis: myocarditis. “Interesting case,” he says. “Usually you don’t want to be interesting. “
Classified as a rare disease, myocarditis is different from most cardiovascular diseases in that it often affects younger and healthier people, making the heart larger and weaker by making it work harder to pump oxygen and blood in the body. This can be fatal, although most cases resolve on their own without recurrence. Although most cases of the disease are of unknown cause, it is often the result of viral infections – which means I may have contracted it from a virus that was not detected, perhaps. even be COVID-19. (To my knowledge, I have never had COVID and have received semi-regular tests for it, including one upon admission to the emergency room.)
In the past few months, a very small number of documented cases have emerged of patients – usually men under the age of 30 – developing symptoms of myocarditis within 12 to 96 hours of receiving the second Moderna or Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. (It should be noted that just because an adverse event occurred near the time of vaccination did not mean that it was caused by the vaccine.) When I started showing symptoms, the media to the states United were still a month away from reporting that the CDC was investigating rare cases of myocarditis in vaccinees. Even though several doctors along the way told me that the vaccine could not be ruled out as a potential cause, the possibility seemed too far-fetched to be considered and seemed likely to elicit charged responses from anyone who had heard of my condition. case. At one point, Ellie heard a paramedic mention that “this is why” they had not yet been vaccinated.
Over the past month, regulators around the world have announced post-vaccine myocarditis surveys, offering few definitive answers but confirming, at least, that I’m not the only one navigating this particular set of circumstances. . Israel’s health ministry said last month that 62 cases had been reported in around 5 million people vaccinated with a disproportionate number of those cases occurring in men aged 16 to 30. The CDC, in a poorly detailed statement, said it was investigating “relatively few” cases. In an attempt to get a better idea of the total number of cases in the United States, I consulted with the CDC Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System – an early warning system used to track potential vaccine safety issues. (The system’s website states that reports submitted to VAERS are voluntary, subject to bias, and “may contain incomplete, inaccurate, incidental or unverifiable information.”) As of May 28, a search for “myocarditis” in the vaccine COVID recipients brought 255 results – one of them, presumably, being me.
I continue to have occasional persistent chest pain, as you would expect with myocarditis, and have been told to avoid alcohol and strenuous activity for the foreseeable future. All signs point to a full recovery, but every step forward seems hesitant – a spike in chest pain last week alarmed me enough to schedule a last minute visit to my cardiologist. A follow-up MRI later this summer should provide more clarity on my recovery timeline, although the cause of my condition remains unknown.