What is Lyme Carditis? Lyme disease causes rare bacterial infection of human heart

Eric Miller, 43, teaches design and manufacturing principles, maker classes and programming at a boarding school in northeast Ohio. When he started in his new position last summer, he suffered a health crisis and ended up in the ICU with a dangerous arrhythmia. Doctors soon found out that he had Lyme carditis, a rare complication of Lyme disease. He shared his story with TODAY.

During the personnel orientation for my new job, I started to feel really miserable in the evenings. At first I dismissed it as stress and nerves of starting a new career. When it persisted, 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 I had Lyme disease and had a rare heart infection that can accompany it.
When I mentioned that I had recently been to the Finger Lakes region of New York, the infectious disease doctor suspected I had Lyme disease and had a rare heart infection that can accompany it.Thanks to Eric Miller

As I walked across campus to the dining room one day, I struggled. I had to sit down and felt a bit shocked. I have never had major health problems 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 felt clammy – and when I stood up, I nearly passed out. A colleague recommended that I visit the campus health center and drive me there in a golf cart. Immediately the nurse noticed that my blood pressure was low and my heart rate was only in my 40s. She asked if I was a runner and told her I wasn’t. Although she didn’t know why my heart rate was so low, she advised me to go to an emergency room just to be safe. My wife, Nichole, picked me up and started driving to the emergency room when we decided to just go to the emergency room. Even sitting in the car felt heavy and again I thought I was going to pass out. She kept talking to me to keep me awake. When I arrived at the emergency department, they hooked me up to an EKG machine to measure my heart function.

Once they saw the results, they brought in a crash cart to try and get my heart back into a normal rhythm before arranging a transfer to a Cleveland Clinic hospital. My health was so bad that I had to be admitted to a cardiac intensive care unit. As doctors continued to run tests, they asked me about my medical history, and then 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 are delayed 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 problems to being able to have a pacemaker for the rest of my life. It was a heavy feeling like I wasn’t as healthy as I thought I was. But my heart was not communicating well and it needed some help. Although I knew a pacemaker would help me, I hoped my prognosis would change.

Facing the unknown I felt terrified, when doctors started treating me for Lyme disease, I started to recover and no longer needed a pacemaker.
Facing the unknown I felt terrified, when doctors started treating me for Lyme disease, I started to recover and no longer needed a pacemaker.Thanks to Eric Miller

When they were preparing me for an MRI, I passed out and they postponed it. But a doctor insisted. He thought I had Lyme carditis and the images from the MRI would give them a better understanding. This doctor also advised me to treat me with the antibiotics commonly used for Lyme disease. After they started it, something amazing happened – my heart started to improve and they put in a temporary pacemaker to help me heal.

After about two days in the cardiac ICU, the blood tests were positive for Lyme disease. They told me more about Lyme carditis. In a small percentage of people with Lyme disease, the bacteria gets into the heart tissue. That causes the heart to have trouble sending normal electrical signals between the upper and lower chambers of the heart. They told me it’s a bit of a blessing in disguise as it helps them spot Lyme infection early on – it doesn’t occur until two to six weeks after infection.

This also meant that I may not need a pacemaker after 21 days of IV antibiotics delivered directly to my heart. I came home with a PICC line so I could continue treatment at home. I had some follow ups with the infectious disease doctor and cardiologist and my heart was back to normal. I have to be extra careful about my exposure to ticks in the future because new tests cannot determine whether I have a new or existing Lyme infection.

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

It's been less than a year since my attack of Lyme carditis.  I warn everyone to protect themselves from ticks so they don't go through what I went through.
It’s been less than a year since my attack of Lyme carditis. I warn everyone to protect themselves from ticks so they don’t go through what I went through.Thanks to Eric Miller

While I don’t have any ongoing health issues from my experience, it’s still hard for me to accept that I was in a near-death situation. Since I have Lyme carditis, I make it a point to talk to friends and family about the dangers of ticks. Checking for ticks after being outside is important, as is wearing 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 I did.

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