The doctor ran out of the urgent care center, headed straight for Ellen Whitney’s car.
The concerned expression on her face and the alarm in her voice said this was serious.
“Go to the emergency room now,” Dr. Rebecca Varghese told Whitney as she sat outside the Montvale medical facility.
It was little more than a week after the 62-year-old Hillsdale woman received Johnson & Johnson’s single-dose coronavirus vaccine at Hackensack University Medical Center. She felt general malaise and minor pain in her right side.
Varghese, owner of Lifeline Urgent Care, had checked Whitney’s vitals in the parking lot and sent her to the emergency department.
“She had shortness of breath, and she looked anxious. And her heart rate was very fast. … The vital signs were not stable,” Varghese said.
The doctor suspected Whitney had developed pulmonary embolisms — blood clots in her lungs.
Varghese was soon proven right. Whitney is one of the rare people who developed blood clotting issues after receiving the vaccine from Johnson & Johnson, the New Brunswick-based pharmaceutical giant, her electronic medical records indicate.
At least 28 people nationwide have developed the blood clotting disorder thrombosis with thrombocytopenia syndrome (TTS) among the 9 million who have received the J&J vaccine, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Wednesday. Three have died.
Most of the cases were among 18- to 49-year-old women, the CDC said. Only six cases have involved men.
The agency had reported just 17 of the clotting cases as of April 25.
A pause was placed on Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine last month so that the issue could be investigated. The suspension was lifted 10 days later by the CDC and the Food and Drug Administration after an independent advisory panel recommended that the benefits of the shot outweighed the risk.
However, the CDC said Wednesday that evidence “suggests a plausible causal association” between the vaccine and TTS. Dr. Tom Shimabukuro, who leads the CDC’s COVID-19 vaccine safety monitoring work, said TTS develops three to 15 days after vaccination.
It’s just more bad news for Johnson & Johnson.
Despite the attractiveness of the one-dose option, the J&J vaccine was found to be 66% effective in clinical trials, compared to an efficacy of about 95% for the Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech two-dose shots. After the pause, a large majority of unvaccinated Americans said they didn’t want to take J&J’s vaccine due to safety concerns.
And there has been a series of “breakthrough cases” linked to Johnson & Johnson’s shot, in which people received the vaccine yet still contracted COVID-19. The New York Yankees announced this week that eight members of their organization contracted the virus despite being vaccinated, according to SI.com. Last month, the team immunized 85% of its players, coaches and staff. Most received the J&J shot, the report noted.
Varghese thought blood clots might be the culprit in Whitney’s case because she had received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
“That’s the first thing she said,” Varghese said.
When combined with her vitals, the doctor knew it was an emergency. The gravity of Varghese’s concern surprised Whitney, who did not realize she was confronting a life-threatening issue as she sat in the car with her husband, Peter Elliott, 59.
“What I thought was remarkable was they didn’t even let us inside,” she said. “The doctor literally ran out.”
Whitney, a graphic designer for the West Essex Tribune, had received Johnson & Johnson’s single-dose vaccine on April 11. About a week later, she began to feel mildly ill. She experienced general malaise, soreness on her right side, and while she wasn’t struggling to breathe, “it hurt when I took a deep breath,” she said.
“My right-hand side, like under my ribs, I felt some pain,” Whitney said. “Not a bad pain, not enough to take anything for it. But I just noticed it.”
The symptoms seemed minor, and at the time, no reports had linked the Johnson & Johnson vaccine and blood clots. But the following week — when her symptoms began — cases started to emerge.
She didn’t panic reading the reports, but concern did creep in. She had never battled serious illness, certainly nothing related to blood clots.
“I thought, ‘Maybe I am having a reaction,’” Whitney said.
She later added, “I have no heart problems. I have no pulmonary problems. … I don’t have diabetes. I don’t have anything.”
By April 21, she still wasn’t feeling well and decided to make an appointment at the urgent care center.
“My husband said, ‘Let’s just go to the doctor,’” she recalled.
Whitney soon learned she had developed blood clots in both lungs — due to the vaccine, a doctor at The Valley Hospital in Ridgewood told her. One of her lungs also had collapsed.
The hospital reported Whitney’s case to the CDC.
“And the CDC has been in touch with me,” said Whitney, who has discussed her case with the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS), co-managed by the CDC and FDA.
New Jersey does not track vaccine-linked TTS cases within the state, according to Donna Leusner, the director of communications for the Department of Health.
“Among the persons reported to the federal Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS), we know there is one New Jersey woman in the age range of 18-50 who meets the case definition of thrombosis with thrombocytopenia syndrome, or TTS,” she said in an email. “For reasons of medical privacy, the Health Department will not be providing any additional details.”
Whitney wasn’t in too much danger because she sought treatment early. But she has considered what would have happened if she was not proactive.
“What if I hadn’t gone to urgent care?” she said.
From the urgent care parking lot, she and her husband headed straight to The Valley Hospital. They arrived a little after noon.
“I was there for 10 hours (undergoing tests). And they did a CAT scan, they did … an X-ray. They did everything,” Whitney recalled. “And after they got the results of the CAT scan, they said, ‘You have pulmonary embolisms in both of your lungs.’
“They immediately gave me some blood thinner and admitted me.”
She would spend five days in the hospital.
While there, one doctor told her, “We’ve been seeing this” — meaning seeing reactions to the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. At least two doctors mentioned to her that they had recently seen patients with pulmonary blood clots after receiving the J&J shot.
“‘This is from the vaccine,’ That’s what the doctor said to me,” Whitney said. “‘This is from the vaccine.’”
She was put on oxygen and given Eliquis, a blood thinner.
“I was experiencing the pain on the right-hand side,” Whitney said. “And I also started getting — they call it myalgia, it’s muscle aches — just in different parts of my body. And my legs felt weird. So they rushed me down and gave me a sonogram in my legs to check for deep vein thrombosis.”
The pain on her right side grew worse for a day or two, and she was treated with morphine. Doctors surmised she had fluid in the bottom of her lung, which her body eventually absorbed.
Whitney is still on a blood thinner and continues to recover.
Her quick action — and the urgent response by Varghese — allowed doctors to catch the pulmonary embolisms early.
Whitney emphasized that she’s pro-vaccine. But she does want to raise awareness in case anyone else who received the Johnson & Johnson shot experienced similar symptoms.
What does concern her is whether she will have to deal with blood clots for the rest of her life. It’s too early to know, doctors told her.
“This is unchartered waters. We do not know what these weird side effects from vaccines are,” the pulmonologist told her. “We just we don’t know.”
Spencer Kent may be reached at [email protected].