huff vaccine side effect Photo by Bridget Huff
Michigan mom Bridget Huff takes a selfie from her bed in the ER at Beaumont Hospital. She had an anaphylactic reaction to the coronavirus vaccine and still looks forward to her second dose.

“I’m the worst-case scenario,” said this immunocompromised Michigander who had an anaphylactic reaction to the COVID vaccine. Here’s why her reaction was so severe and why she’s getting her second shot.

DETROIT—Laying in a hospital bed after her anaphylactic reaction to the first dose of the coronavirus vaccine, Bridget Huff, of Port Huron, felt her resolve to get her second dose of the vaccine only deepen. 

On Jan. 15, day she went in for her first dose, 29 Michiganders died from the coronavirus. Compared to that, she said her experience was barely an inconvenience. 

“I’m the worst-case scenario, and I’m still gonna do it,” she told The ‘Gander. “You should too.” 

Feeling Lucky in Spite of the Reaction

Huff’s work at a clinic administering the vaccine meant she could get inoculated well in advance of her turn, which was crucial to her as an immunocompromised Michigander and mother of immunocompromised children.

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Huff and her children have a genetic condition called Ehlers-Danlos syndrome (EDS). A relatively unknown syndrome, EDS results in fragile and extremely flexible body tissues, leading often to joint damage and vascular fragility. Because of the long-term stresses EDS places on the body, people with the condition tend to have weakened immune systems.

“It’s really just becoming known, like you can find an Ehlers-Danlos support group and there’s a foundation, but all of this is very recent,” Huff explained. “The emergency room doctor had no idea what it was. Neither did the nurses.”

Huff has had nine surgeries related to her EDS, and is at risk of everything from burst blood vessels to heart fissures. As a result, she is more susceptible to the coronavirus.

Most concerning is a complication of both the coronavirus and EDS called a cytokine storm. Cytokines are what alert the immune system to an infection, and are a critical part of fighting off any disease, including the coronavirus. Some situations can trigger this biological early warning system to go haywire. Released in massive amounts during a cytokine storm, this alarm bell calls out immune cells in droves, acting as a wrecking ball to the everyday processes of the body. Cytokine storms are essentially intense allergic reactions without a cause and combining EDS’s risk of these storms with coronavirus’ makes them dramatically more likely, and more dangerous. 

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“Like your skin would react if you touched poison ivy? That’s how my body acts all the time, on its own, it’s random, there’s really nothing you can do about it,” she explained. “Anyone with EDS has to take it seriously and absolutely needs to get the vaccine regardless of possible reactions because your chances of surviving COVID are greatly reduced.” 

That, she said, is far more concerning than using an EpiPen and spending a few hours in the hospital.

Being ‘the Worst Case Scenario’

Out of every vaccination Huff has seen, as a volunteer at a clinic administering the vaccine, she was the only person who a half hour after her first dose of the coronavirus vaccine had an anaphylactic reaction. 

That isn’t to say Huff’s reaction wasn’t severe or concerning. It’s just that it was exceedingly rare and something she knew to prepare for. 

Out of every million people who receive the vaccine, 11 react the way she did, according to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention. Based on those statistics, out of every dose administered in Michigan to date, she’s one of nine who had an anaphylactic reaction. 

The relative rarity of Huff’s reaction makes it especially prone to rumor and speculation, Huff said. Secondhand accounts of stories like hers dominate online, causing alarm without always offering the necessary context.

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“Pretending my issue doesn’t exist doesn’t help anyone, it just makes it like the boogeyman,” she said. “I want to be a voice of reason for people. Take precautions. It’s not that difficult. The worst-case scenario is still better than a ventilator.”

Most people, she said, report symptoms like feeling stiff around the injection site, tired, and slightly feverish. Those, she stressed, are normal signs that the vaccine is doing its job. And even if it makes someone feel sick, experts remind that the vaccine isn’t capable of giving a recipient the coronavirus itself because of how it’s designed.

Knowing her side effects were likely to be more severe because of her medical history, Huff took safety precautions she advises for other Michiganders who are worried about side effects. She had someone on standby. She went to a clinic with on-site staff and equipment to stabilize her should something go wrong. She alerted the staff to the chance that she would have an allergic reaction. At the first sign, the clinic sprang into action.

“[A nurse] was never more than two feet away from me,” Huff said. “She wrote everything down and then she went and let the lead nurse know. They moved me a few feet away to be near the lead nurse and kept watching the time. They were writing down times as they were taking my vitals. At almost 20 minutes, they called the head of the health department at that particular facility.”

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Thanks both to her preparedness and the clinic’s careful watch, she had the care she needed. And when a determination was made to send her to the emergency room, Huff said it took three minutes to get from her clinic to Beaumont Hospital.

From the moment she was taken to the emergency room, everyone from medical staff to friends were constantly asking Huff if she intended to get her second necessary shot in order to become immunized. She didn’t even need to consider the question.

While at the hospital, she explained, “I was laying there, [experiencing a bad reaction], looking at these stats, and I can’t imagine anyone saying ‘no, my two hours in the ER and my IV was much too horrible. I’d rather possibly die of COVID.’ Like, I just can’t comprehend that logic.”