Our friends in health care have seen plenty to impale the heart in this COVID-19 pandemic, but nothing more tragic than this: the sight of guilt-ridden young children who believe they’ve killed an unvaccinated parent by bringing the virus home.
“And as they’re dying, the kids are at the bedside apologizing,” a hospital nurse tells me.
“You’ve actually seen that?” I ask her.
“Multiple times,” says the nurse.
My Kansas City nurse friend, who can’t use her name because she isn’t authorized to speak to the media, occasionally shares this inconceivable, untold tragedy with dinner companions who obnoxiously insist on spouting their anti-vaccine views to her over burgers and beer.
Some of them are shamed into silence by what she tells them. But others cling stubbornly to their defiance, even after hearing of parents who’ve left their children motherless or fatherless because of it – and left them with a lifetime of self-reproach for something that clearly wasn’t their fault.
Of course it isn’t the kids’ fault they got sick and may have gotten their unvaccinated father or mother deathly ill. While Dad or Mom could’ve easily gotten vaccinated, the children could not have. “But they still just feel terrible, because they feel like they killed their parent,” she says.
COVID vaccine resistance goes on and on and on, even amid the delta variant and among the caring hospital workers who can help, if not the dying patients then their survivors. Astonishingly, many of those who’ve seen a loved one die still refuse to get vaccinated.
“We discuss it. We try to push it. Our doctors try to push it,” my friend says of efforts to vaccinate the survivors of COVID’s dead and dying. “It seems more often than not they don’t want it.”
Good God, why not?
The nurse says most complain they don’t know what’s in the shot, or they just don’t trust it or the government. Or they say they’ve gone this long without getting it, so they should be fine – unlike their loved one who succumbed to it.
Vaccine hesitancy – which feeds my friend’s hospital with an unending stream of patients from some of the most intractably vaccine-hesitant counties in America – shows up even in the most desperately ill. One man on the cusp of needing intubation told my friend’s nursing colleague she was an idiot for being vaccinated.
“He asked her if she’d had her vaccine, and he was just like, ‘You’re stupid,’” the nurse says. “Just laid into her about how everybody’s falling for what the government says and COVID’s not real and you shouldn’t get the vaccine. While he’s laying in an ICU bed.”
Another man – not the only one, mind you – berated the hospital’s emergency room staff for urging him to be admitted. He walked out, albeit tethered to oxygen, insisting angrily that COVID isn’t real.
“And then we found out that he was at (another hospital) within 12 hours on a ventilator,” the nurse says. “He was, the whole time, just saying, like, ‘COVID’s not real. You guys are stupid.’
“I could tell you that story about every day – that they’re just yelling at us and they leave and then they come back or they go to (another hospital) because they’re worse than when they left. And as they’re being intubated they still don’t believe it.
“We’re all so exhausted we don’t want to beg you to stay, but we do because we know you’re going to leave and die.”
This is the tragedy tucked inside COVID’s calamity. As if our heroes in health care need more on their shoulders, they must deal with hostility toward them and toward the hard-won medicine that could’ve saved even the quarrelsome – and perhaps saved their young children a lifetime of groundless guilt for having brought home the virus that killed Daddy.
“If that story doesn’t make you change your mind, I just don’t really care to talk with you at all,” my nurse friend says, matter-of-factly. “If that doesn’t bother you, I don’t know what will.
“It’s mind-blowing to all of us. We just can’t fathom it.”
Still, she and her colleagues work long, incessant hours to save even the belligerent unbelievers, all the while compartmentalizing the monstrous tragedies they endure, just to stay sane and functional. There seems no end to the cruelty, because there seems no end to the unmoved and unvaccinated.
“I think the worst part is knowing that there’s just no end in sight. Even if we get a lull, and maybe the census goes down a little bit, it’s going to keep spiking all winter. And we know that, and it’s just exhausting to think about it.”
Ultimately, the worst part has to be seeing kids who will grow up believing they’ve killed an unvaccinated parent, when in fact stubbornness, ignorance or cynicism did the deed.
Michael Ryan is a columnist and editorial writer for the Kansas City Star.