What Is Lyme Carditis? Lyme Disease Causes Rare Bacterial Infection of Man’s Heart

Eric Miller, 43, teaches principles of design and fabrication, maker classes and programming at a boarding school in Northeastern Ohio. As he started his new position last summer, he experienced a health crisis and landed him in the cardiac ICU with a dangerous arrhythmia. Doctors soon learned that 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 feeling really rundown in the evenings. At first, I dismissed it as stress and nerves from starting a new career. When it became persistent, I thought I should make an appointment with a doctor for a checkup. But before I could, I became much sicker.

When I mentioned that I had recently been in the Finger Lakes region of New York, the infectious disease doctor suspected that I had had Lyme disease and was experiencing a rare heart infection that can occur with it.Courtesy Eric Miller

One day walking across campus to the dining hall, I struggled. I had to sit down and felt a little shocked. I’ve never experienced any major health issues and I’m active with my family. I’m not running marathons, but I am not easily winded either. When I returned to my office, I broke out in a cold sweat. Even with the air conditioning running, my skin felt clammy — and when I went to stand, I almost passed out. A colleague recommended I visit the campus health center and drove me over in a golf cart. Immediately the nurse noticed my blood pressure was low and my heart rate was only in the 40s. She asked if I was a runner and told her I was not. While she didn’t know why my heart rate was so low, she recommended that I visit an urgent care to be safe. My wife, Nichole, picked me up and started driving to urgent care when we decided just to go to an emergency room. Even sitting in the car felt tough and I thought again I might pass out. She kept chatting with me to try to keep me awake. When I arrived at the emergency department, they hooked me up to an EKG machine to measure my heart function.

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

They ran loads of tests, including two blood tests that detect Lyme disease. But blood tests take a while for results and doctors wanted to act immediately. They told me that I’d likely need a pacemaker. I felt stunned. I went from not having any major health issues to possibly needing a pacemaker for the rest of my life. It was tough feeling like I wasn’t as healthy as I thought I was. But my heart wasn’t communicating properly and it needed some assistance. While I knew that a pacemaker would help me, I hoped that my prognosis would change.

While facing the unknown felt scary, when doctors began treating me for Lyme disease I started recovering and would no longer need a pacemaker.
While facing the unknown felt scary, when doctors began treating me for Lyme disease I started recovering and would no longer need a pacemaker.Courtesy Eric Miller

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

After about two days in the cardiac ICU the 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 gets into the heart tissue. That causes the heart to struggle to send normal electrical signals between the heart’s upper and lower chambers. They told me it was somewhat of a blessing in disguise because it helps them identify a Lyme infection early on — it only occurs within two to six weeks after infection.

This also meant that I might not need a pacemaker after I finished 21 days of IV antibiotics delivered directly into my heart. I returned home with a PICC line so that I could continue treatment at home. I had some follow ups with the infectious disease doctor and the cardiologist and my heart had returned to normal. I do have to be extra cautious about my exposure to ticks in the future because new tests won’t 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 gain a better understanding of what happened, I told them I had not found a tick on my body recently. I do regularly check for ticks as I understand the risk for Lyme. But the ticks that carry Lyme disease are small and it could be that I had one hiding in my beard or in my hair that I didn’t spot.

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

While I don’t have any lingering health issues from my experience, it still is hard for me to accept that I was in a near death situation. Since having Lyme carditis I make it a point to talk to friends and family about the dangers of ticks. Checking for ticks after being outdoors is important as well as wearing long sleeves and pants especially in areas with high tick activity. I want people to avoid contracting Lyme so they don’t end up in a scary situation like I did.


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