I’m 51, a husband to my lovely wife Carissa, and father of two children. Prior to the COVID vaccine I was in peak health and fitness and had no medical issues at all. I work FIFO on an oil rig as a maintenance supervisor. It is common procedure to have regular medical check-ups, and these have always come back good. Before this job, I served in the navy for eight years as a submariner, so fitness was always a priority of mine. I enjoyed mountain bike riding and doing regular gym work outs.
I got the jab because of the work mandate. I held out as long as I could in hope that the mandates would drop. I am not an anti-vaccine as I had taken other vaccines in the Navy, but this new one seemed rushed through and it concerned me. Reluctantly, I had to get the Pfizer vaccine on the 1st of December 2021 or lose my job. I felt nothing. Three weeks went by and I went ahead and got the second Pfizer vaccine on the 23rd of December 2021. The next morning, I felt fatigued and hung over. I hoped I would feel right for Christmas. I thought it would pass as I had reassurance from others on the rig that they had similar experiences.
I pushed through and got the Pfizer booster shot on the 29th of March 2022. The next day I developed flu like symptoms and a persistent cough. I pushed through and thought this too would pass. I noticed when I was doing the regular task of cutting up firewood that I struggled. I suddenly had shortness of breath and had to rest on the back of the ute. It occurred to me that maybe I was having a reaction to the vaccine as I had never felt this before. Since I had heard many stories about dismissive behaviour from medical staff, I didn’t go to the GP.
Though I managed to have good sleep, I felt aches in my body, particularly around the rib cage and my cough lingered. I thought it too would pass and I prepared to go back to work on the Monday 4th of April 2022. By then even though the cough was still there, I was feeling less achy, so I drove three hours to Perth, caught a two hour Qantas flight to Karratha then a 30 minute helicopter ride to the oil rig. My role as a supervisor involves lots of office work, some site visits and addressing the team in meetings.
On 8th of April 2022 I worked out doing a gym circuit on the helideck and towards the end, my calf muscle was sore, but as it was towards the end of the session, I pushed through thinking it was a strain. It caused a limp, but I persevered with it for three days before the pain stopped. By this time, I was more concerned about my cough as it appeared to be getting worse, I thought I could have asthma and shared my concern with my wife, but I had no prior history of it. A few times I also struggled to address my crew, in the meetings as standing and reading was making me short of breath. It started to take its toll on me. I could not easily ascend stairs or climb ladders anymore.
On Friday 22nd of April I went to the gym and started with the row machine. I aimed to complete 2000m but only managed to do 500m before really needing to stop as I was so short of breath. It all appeared to be getting worse. The following week on the 26th of April 2022, I went to the medic on the rig and expressed my concerns, relating the symptoms back to the vaccination when it all started.
Regular COVID testing (RAT) had already been done prior to arriving and had already been ruled out due to negative test results. The doctor did an Oxygen Saturation Test and found that my oxygen levels were dropping to 92% well below normal range. He relayed the results to a doctor in Karratha which was protocol. But it was left to me to make the call. My manager approached me and asked, “Do you want to get off the rig?” He had noticed me struggling at the meetings. As I had eight days to go and sitting behind the computer at work was manageable, I thought I could stick it out. That same night my cough started to worsen and kept me awake. I called the medic late and asked for cold and flu tablets. I propped myself up on pillows and this helped a bit. The following day, I was encouraged to leave the rig and a helicopter made a diversion to pick me up from the rig to take me to Karratha Airport. I had to carry my bag from the helipad to the airport building about 800m away and it took me five rest stops to get my breath back each time.
My plan was to see my local doctor who had my medical history, so I took a flight to Perth airport and met my wife there. I felt awful at this stage. I had chest pains, felt clammy and struggled to breathe. It was a difficult decision to make deciding on going to Perth Hospital which had been in the news for lengthy wait times in ER, so we headed to Bunbury Hospital one and a half hours away and went straight to emergency. We arrived there at 10pm and I was taken away in a wheelchair, but the triage nurses would not allow my wife to enter the hospital due to her non-COVID vaccinated status. Horribly, she was sent to wait in the car park for further updates.
After relaying the current symptoms, the medical staff did an Oxygen Saturation Test and it was again seriously low. Even with the application of an oxygen mask the levels did not improve, so they fitted oxygen tubes into my nose. Next a CT scan was done to get a better picture of what was happening. Very quickly a diagnosis was given, that the condition was a pulmonary embolism in my lungs. I was told that I was very sick as there were blood clots in my lungs and calf and they highly recommended that I be airlifted by the Royal Flying Doctors Service, to Sir Charles Gardener Hospital in Perth the next day. I started on blood thinners that night.
A nurse met Carissa in the car park, to give her my update and suggested going home to Margaret River, as there was nothing she could do there.
On the 27th of April 2022, I arrived at Sir Charles Gardener Hospital at 8am. The hospital is a Cardiothoracic Specialist Hospital and there were many people waiting in the ER. My serious case was taken to four surgeons who discussed the options and gave me three courses of action.
The first was to just take blood thinners but they mentioned just doing that would lead to a one in six chance of dying.
The second was to take medication usually given to stroke victims to dissipate clots but the side effects were mainly the chance of a brain bleed.
The last option was to clear the blood clots surgically by removing the heart and cleaning out the clots. The deeper ones in the lungs would be mopped out by the blood thinners.
It was a difficult decision to make, however the best course of action was the third, and it was even harder to tell my wife and family that over the phone. During discussions with the surgeons, I had related symptoms to all starting with the booster shot. One of the surgeons did firmly say to me that my condition was not due to the COVID vaccine as I had had Pfizer and not AstraZeneca. I wasn’t going to argue!
I was in theatre at 9am the same day and the open-heart surgery took five to six hours. The surgeons removed a 30 to 40cm blood clot which was placing pressure on the heart, and inserted an IVC filter in the veins to stop clots travelling from the calf to the heart. It would have to remain for six months and then be removed. The severity of blood clots was a real mystery to the surgeons as usual causes could be a flight from long flight or presence of cancer. So a lymph node test was done which came back negative two weeks later. Overall, the surgery was a success.
Whilst I was in an induced coma for two days and spent three days in ICU and five days in the High Dependency Unit, my wife travelled to Perth. She was refused entry once again and left to rely on my daughter to be given updates. One ICU nurse tried to arrange entry, but it was met with backlash from other medical staff. After an eight day hospital stay I was moved to an Airbnb for post-surgery treatment. A nurse visited every day to monitor my progress and change the dressings.
For the next five months I focused on my recovery from open heart surgery. I was advised to rest and do light walking only. I used up all my sick leave. I had regular check-ups. A month later I did a follow up CT scan at Busselton Hospital. There was still concern over some clots in the lower half of the lungs, but I was discharged as I was still on blood thinner medication. I returned to work again on the 29th of September 2022.
On the 11th of November 2022, I went in for a day procedure to remove the IVC filter at the six-month mark. I have continued to take the blood thinner called apixaban and after following up with the haematologist and immunologist, they have recommended to take this for the rest of my life. Both specialists recognised that the Pfizer booster shot was what provoked the pulmonary embolism and gave a written medical report stating this. Disappointingly, the application for the Adverse Reaction Compensation Scheme was denied.
At present, I feel back to my normal self, though still have a slight pain at the base of my sternum. The GP thinks it is just tenderness from the surgery. I can do the regular activities like mountain bike riding and cutting timber once again without the shortness of breath, though I must be mindful of what I do, due to being on blood thinners.
I share my story because I want to bring the truth and awareness of what is happening to others. Where there is risk there must be choice and I stand by this 100%. Hopefully my story can help make a difference.