My sudden cardiac symptoms were a mystery. Until the doctors asked me where I had spent my holidays

Eric Miller, 43, teaches design and manufacturing principles, manufacturing courses, and programming at a boarding school in northeast Ohio. When he started his new position last summer, he suffered a health crisis and was taken to cardiac intensive care with a dangerous arrhythmia. Doctors soon learned he had Lyme carditis, a rare complication of Lyme disease. He shared his story with TODAY.

During employee orientation for my new job, I started to feel really exhausted in the evenings. At first I dismissed it as the stress and nerves of starting a new career. When this became persistent, I thought I should make an appointment with a doctor for a checkup. But before I could, I got much sicker.

When I mentioned that I had recently been to the Finger Lakes region of New York, the infectious disease doctor suspected that I had Lyme disease and was suffering from a rare heart infection that can accompany him.Courtesy of Eric Miller

One day, walking across campus to the dining hall, I struggled. I had to sit down and was a bit shocked. I have never had any major health issues and am active with my family. I don’t run marathons, but I don’t get out of breath easily either. When I returned to my office, I broke out in a cold sweat. Even with the air conditioning on, my skin was clammy – and when I went to get up I nearly passed out. A colleague recommended that I visit the campus health center and drove me in a golf cart. Immediately the nurse noticed that my blood pressure was low and my heart rate was only around 40. She asked me if I was a runner and told her no. Although she didn’t know why my heart rate was so low, she recommended that I seek emergency care to be safe. My wife, Nichole, picked me up and started going to the ER when we decided to go to the ER. Even sitting in the car I felt hard and thought again that I might pass out. She kept arguing with me trying to keep me awake. When I got to the emergency department, they hooked me up to an ECG machine to measure my heart function.

As soon as they saw the results, they brought in an emergency cart to try and get my heart back to normal before arranging a transfer to a Cleveland Clinic hospital. My health was so bad that I needed to be in a cardiac intensive care unit. As the doctors continued to run tests, they asked about my medical history and that’s when our recent trip to the Finger Lakes region of New York was mentioned. Almost immediately someone suggested Lyme disease.

They performed numerous tests, including two blood tests that detect Lyme disease. But blood tests take time to show results and doctors wanted to act immediately. They told me I would probably need a pacemaker. I felt stunned. I went from having no major health issues to possibly needing a pacemaker for the rest of my life. It was hard to feel that I wasn’t as healthy as I thought. But my heart wasn’t communicating properly and it needed help. While I knew a pacemaker would help, I hoped my prognosis would change.

While facing the unknown scared me, when doctors started treating me for Lyme disease, I began to recover and would no longer need a pacemaker.
While facing the unknown scared me, when doctors started treating me for Lyme disease, I began to recover and would no longer need a pacemaker.Courtesy of Eric Miller

As they were getting me ready for an MRI, I passed out and they postponed it. But a doctor insisted. He thought I had Lyme carditis and the MRI imaging would give them a better understanding. This doctor also recommended treating me with the commonly used antibiotics for Lyme disease. After they started them, something amazing happened – my heart started to improve and they placed a temporary pacemaker to help me heal.

After about two days in cardiac intensive care, blood tests came back positive for Lyme disease. They told me more about Lyme carditis. In a small percentage of people with Lyme disease, the bacteria enters heart tissue. This causes the heart to struggle to send normal electrical signals between the upper and lower chambers of the heart. They told me it was kind of a blessing in disguise because it helps them identify a Lyme infection early on – it only happens two to six weeks after infection.

It also meant that I might not need a pacemaker after I completed 21 days of IV antibiotics delivered directly into my heart. I went home with a PICC line so I could continue the treatment at home. I had a few follow-ups with the infectious disease doctor and the cardiologist and my heart was back to normal. I have to be very careful about my exposure to ticks in the future as the new tests will not be able to determine if I have a new or existing Lyme infection.

When I was first admitted and they asked me questions to try to better understand what had happened, I told them that I had not found a tick on my body recently. I regularly check for ticks because I understand the risk of Lyme. But ticks that carry Lyme disease are small, and I might have had one hidden in my beard or in my hair that I didn’t spot.

It hasn't been quite a year since my episode of Lyme carditis.  I warn everyone to protect themselves against ticks so they don't experience what I experienced.
It hasn’t been quite a year since my episode of Lyme carditis. I warn everyone to protect themselves against ticks so they don’t experience what I experienced.Courtesy of Eric Miller

Although I don’t have any lingering health issues in my experience, it’s still hard for me to accept that I was in a near-death situation. Since I have Lyme Carditis, I have made it a point to tell my friends and family about the dangers of ticks. It is important to check for ticks after being outdoors, and to wear long sleeves and pants, especially in areas with high tick activity. I want people to avoid getting Lyme so they don’t end up in a scary situation like me.


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