Patricia McRae, 79, of Burlington, Ont., could not wait to get her COVID-19 vaccine and become one step closer to reuniting with her large extended family.
“I’ve never seen someone so excited about a day in her life. She was so excited. They went, they came, they sat on the porch. She had her sticker. I videotaped her about how happy she was that she had just got the shot,” recalled her daughter, Mary Lynn Futers.
Soon after, McRae began to feel sick. The family chalked it up, at first, to commonly experienced vaccine side effects.
“You know, she’s little. She has a dose. Her response is very different than my dad’s and then the symptoms actually eased up — they started to disappear. I started to get the texts to say, ‘I feel so much better, sweetie,’ ‘Much better day today, sweetie,'” said Futers.
Out of an abundance of caution, Futers’ parents went to get tested for COVID-19. Both tests came back positive.
“She deteriorated like she fell off a cliff,” said Futers.
One night, her husband called 911.
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“There was a nuance. It was a hand tremor. It was a slight incoherence … when the paramedics arrived, she was saturating 45 per cent on room air, which is incompatible with life, really,” said Futers.
McRae ended up at Joseph Brant Hospital in critical condition. She had to be put on a ventilator.
As a former respiratory therapist, Futers said she feared her mother might not survive.
“I actually expected her not to make the first 24 hours, to be honest,” she recalled.
“The experience with COVID is very life, death, life, death, life, death … after she got off the ventilator, she went to the floor. There was this guarded hope that she was going to improve and then she failed again.”
It remains unclear where and when McRae was exposed to COVID-19, but doctors warned the effects of the vaccine will not be seen for 14 days.
“You’re more protected day by day but it’s not perfect protection,” explained Dr. Zain Chagla, an infectious diseases expert.
“You can still get COVID-19 if you’re exposed, if you’re someone that is vulnerable, you can still get significant symptoms you can transmit to others and end up in hospital or ICU.”
That is something internal medicine and critical care physician, Dr. Jamie Spiegelman, said he has seen in the ICU at Humber River Hospital.
“We’ve definitely seen a lot of patients come in about a week after they got the vaccine with COVID which means the vaccine hasn’t had the chance to work so that’s kind of expected, it really isn’t a shield for getting COVID,” he said.
“We still have to do all the protection necessary even if you’re fully vaccinated.”
For now, McRae’s family said they are taking the situation one day at a time, always waiting by the phone for an update from the medical team caring for her in the hospital.
“We wait because they’re inundated and we wait for the call and then that changes the course of the day,” said Futers.
With a medical background, Futers said she can understand the ebbs and flows her mother is experiencing physically as she battles COVID-19. As the daughter of a patient, she said she hopes to share this message with others families whose loved ones are sick in hospital.
“I can understand the tsunami of fear that envelops you when you have a loved one that is critically ill and at the brink of death with COVID,” she said, adding “I think the biggest lesson we’ve learned and it has been from Mom is that even amidst that darkness, we have to hold on to hope because it is the only thing that will get you through.”