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Amy & Mark Lyness Story: It's OK to change your mind about not getting vaccinated for COVID-19

“It was so terrifying … this is real. This isn’t something that only happens in New York City. This is happening in rural Iowa,” said Amy Lyness of rural northeast Iowa after contracting COVID-19 and nearly losing her life.

“I never thought it was going to happen to me.”

COVID-19 did happen to Amy and her husband, Mark, both in their 40s. They thought they were young, healthy and the vaccine wasn’t necessary. They both knew friends who had COVID-19, but the disease seemed to pass quickly. Some lost taste and smell, but “that was about it.” During this time, Mark said he was “definitely not going to get vaccinated.”

Amy’s approach was similar. “I just didn’t feel like it was for me. I didn’t do my research,” she admitted. “And everything I was reading about the vaccine wasn’t from the right sources. It wasn’t real.”

Months before Amy and Mark contracted COVID-19, the Kaiser Family Foundation released a poll that found 1 in 5 rural Americans will “definitely not” get the vaccine. Another 24% said they would take a wait-and-see approach or only get the vaccine if required.

Although Amy and Mark’s daughter, who worked in a long-term care facility, was vaccinated, there were still disagreements in the family.

And that decision led to Amy and Mark’s COVID-19 journey starting in late July 2021. Mark went to the emergency room at Regional Medical Center in Manchester. Amy was also beginning to experience some symptoms. Mark was immediately tested for COVID-19 at the hospital — and he was positive. Hospital staff sent him home to recuperate.

When Mark tells the story, he acknowledges he is foggy about all the details: He was extremely sick and lost 35 pounds in a little over a week. He had so little energy that even something as small as taking the dog out was a significant effort.

At the same time, Mark was dealing with COVID-19, Amy was also facing the illness. “Obviously, I knew I had COVID-19, but I chose not to get tested,” Amy said. “I thought, just another day and I’ll be fine.”

Eight days after her first symptoms, Amy went to the emergency department at Regional Medical Center in Manchester. “When I got there, my temperature was extremely high, and my oxygen levels were low,” Amy said.

Amy had not shown any progress in a few days, and the staff approached her about transferring to UnityPoint Health-St. Luke’s Hospital in Cedar Rapids. At the time, there was one open bed in their intensive care unit. Amy texted her husband and told him Regional Medical Center was transferring her by ambulance to Cedar Rapids. Amy spent five days in the ICU before moving to a COVID-19 room.

“It was terrifying. What you see in pandemic movies of how an ICU unit works, that is how it really is,” she said. “You are isolated in a room. While you’re thinking about living or dying, I instantly regretted that I didn’t get vaccinated,” Amy said.

Amy reviewed the text messages she sent to her husband during her hospital stays. “The first thing I said to him was, ‘I’m very scared.’”

I also said, “‘What if I die?’ And then the last thing I said to him was, ‘Why didn’t we get vaccinated?’”

Today, Mark is “pretty much back to normal,” but Amy’s COVID-19 recovery has been extensive. “It’s been six months since I was released from the hospital, and my lungs are not the same,” she said. “It’s still hard to get my breath. Walking and talking are still hard. I’ve had significant hair loss. I still have severe fatigue.”

Amy said she would ask people who are still vaccine-hesitant, “Would you rather have one day of sickness from the vaccine or a lifetime of problems?”

Amy said this ordeal has been rough for the entire family, especially for their 16-year-old son, who is still at home. He had to stay away from his home for a month and luckily did not contract COVID-19. “He was facing possibly losing both of his parents,” Amy said. “He decided to get the vaccine on his own after seeing what his parents went through.”

According to Mark, there’s just too much that can go wrong without getting the vaccine. “It’s that plain and simple,” he said. “We went through a lot. I don’t want anyone else to go through it.”

“I would tell anyone who’s on the fence about getting the vaccine to do your research. Talk to doctors, nurses, anyone who is an expert in the vaccine,” Amy said. “Don’t listen to social media or the wrong channels. That’s what I did. When I was in the hospital for 10 days, I asked a lot of questions of the doctors and nurses about what I heard about the vaccine. None of it was true. All the information I got just wasn’t true.”

Today, Mark and Amy are vaccinated. She says it is “cool” seeing her family come together and get vaccinated because of their story. COVID-19 will always be with Amy and Mark’s family (Amy has since had an aunt pass away from COVID-19). She says the experience has changed her entire life, “some for the better and some for the worse.”

Amy offers one piece of solid advice after nearly dying from COVID-19 and experiencing long-haul effects even today: “It’s OK to change your mind. Get vaccinated.”

 

Dr. Sonia Sather Story: A Physician's COVID-19 Message - "You don't want to see me"

“We’ve all had it with COVID-19,” said Sonia Sather, M.D. “Everybody’s ready to be done with this.”

As a hospitalist in Spencer, Iowa, Dr. Sather has treated more than 140 COVID-19 patients. For her part, she’s ready to be done with impossible conversations.

“I’ve had to look people in the eye and say, ‘I’m so sorry …’” she said, pausing as tears rise in her eyes. “‘I’m so sorry. There’s nothing more we can do.’”

Nothing to relieve the grief of loved ones, to reduce the pain and suffering. Nothing for the severe cases leaving patients struggling to breathe for weeks or longer. Nothing for the impossible bedside conversations.

In the beginning, there wasn’t much to prevent any of it if someone caught the virus.

Now there is.

Vaccines are proven safe and effective in reducing the spread, minimizing symptoms if infected and preventing hospitalization and death.

Listening to concerns. Answering questions.

Some people are hesitant or don’t want to get vaccinated. What does she say to them?

“It’s really important to talk to them and find out why they've been hesitant about the vaccine, because people have different reasons for it,” Dr. Sather said.

She then addresses the specific things they have concerns about and provides more information.

“The biggest message to those who haven’t been vaccinated is that it’s not too late,” Dr. Sather said. “And there are still really important reasons to vaccinate.”

Those reasons may be familiar to many, but they bear repeating:

  • You are significantly less likely to become seriously ill, require hospitalization or die if you are vaccinated.
  • You are significantly less likely to inadvertently spread the virus to those around you – whether loved ones, friends or strangers – and especially to those you don’t realize are more vulnerable.
  • Even if you’ve had COVID-19, immunity wears off, and new strains appear. Vaccination increases your protection against reinfection and spreading it to others, and it boosts your ability to avoid hospitalization and death.
  • All health care facilities and health care professionals have been stretched to the breaking point. The virus also had a major impact on the availability of regular services, surgeries and procedures.

That last point is a big deal. In “normal” times, regional hospitals around the state rely on major health centers to receive and care for their most severely ill patients.

“Heart attacks, strokes, overwhelming infections or sepsis, complications from chemotherapy – these would normally be transferred to larger centers,” Dr. Sather said.

“But these larger centers have been full, mostly with unvaccinated COVID-19 patients. So, we really haven’t been able to transfer those severe non-COVID-19 patients. That’s made medicine really difficult,” she said.

Getting to normal

No one wants a return to normal more than medical professionals like Dr. Sather. “But we don’t know what’s around the corner,” she said.

The more protection we spread through vaccination, the better our chances of weathering any new variants and speeding our return to a more normal life.

There’s still a fair amount of vaccine avoidance. The reasons are many. For some people, it comes down to not wanting to be told what to do.

But completely avoiding something simply because others think you should do it may keep you from asking questions that could save your life.

“There’s also a lot of misinformation out there on the internet and ‘Dr. Google,’” Dr. Sather said. “The most-important thing is for people to seek out their physician’s expertise and recommendations, as they’ve done over their lifetimes.”

“If there are specific things you’re worried about, you should ask your doctor about them,” she said.

Dr. Sather has held the hands of dying patients, had those impossible conversations, watched loved ones say goodbye and felt their grief over a tragic but preventable loss.

She knows firsthand that the vaccine reduces the severity of the illness and the likelihood of hospitalization and death from COVID-19. When it comes to the vaccine, she’s had it – and wants you to be able to say the same thing.

“I think my biggest message is, it’s not too late to get vaccinated – and that there are important reasons to get vaccinated,” she said.

And the No. 1 reason to get vaccinated?

“You don’t want to see me,” she said.

 

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