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‘That vaccine saved my life:’ Dr. Morrow shares experience with breakthrough COVID-19 infection
Dr. Jim Morrow
Dr. Jim Morrow

Opinion column submitted to the Forsyth County News

Since the start of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, life has changed, and changed again, for each and every one of us.

Friends have been divided, families too. Some division has been due to differing opinions on the pandemic and some division has been based on physicality as those sick enough to be hospitalized, or living in a group environment, have been left completely alone, marking what is to me the most heartbreaking common outcome of the pandemic so far.

With the release of the three vaccines, however, we experienced what could only be described as a light at the end of the tunnel. Those who were willing and interested could and did receive their doses and in a matter of months the vaccine supply was such that anyone wanting a vaccine could get it.

Those who elected not to be vaccinated pointed to the speed with which the vaccines were released and the government financial support of the project as common reasons not to participate.

The events that led to the quicker than usual release of this vaccine compared to any previous one are for another discussion, another article, another time, another cocktail.

As a family physician, I believe it is my duty to gather information that can make my patients’ lives and health better and then to distribute it to them in the best way that I can.

As a microbiologist by training (I received my BS in Microbiology from Clemson University and did my master’s thesis on viruses), I am a full-on believer in how vaccines assist our body’s ability to fight off infections. As a clinician, I see it all the time. And I believe in it.

So, after a few months passed and my wife and I had received both vaccination doses (I got Pfizer and she got Moderna, both early in 2021), we felt invincible. We started to once again enjoy the pleasures of not wearing a mask when dining in, shopping at the local big box store or being with friends. The pandemic was, for us, moving into the rear-view.

But this virus is changing. It is changing as you read this, and it will change again. The Alpha variant from England, the Delta variant from India. Variants that are learning how to survive in the world by infecting people more quickly and more easily.

Each infected person is now spreading Delta to as many as four times the number that the original infected person reached.

So then in late July, on a beautiful Sunday morning at our home in Blue Ridge, while we were hosting out-of-town guests for the first time since the pandemic began, I started coughing. Not a severe chest wracking cough, just a cough. I had some drainage.

Soon, I felt the energy drain from me like I have never ever felt and went straight to bed. The company packed and left.

Several hours of sleep in the middle of the day and, still exhausted, slept more. The fatigue was absolutely bone-crushing. The body aches were horrible, and I knew this was something I had never experienced.

I have had the flu. This was not the flu.

A day later, I was tested and, of course, was positive for COVID-19, the illness caused by SARS-CoV-2. Despite my vaccine status, I was infected, and I was sick. Peggie got sick a day afterward, but luckily, she was never terribly ill.

That first week was horrible with the fatigue, body aches and overall miserableness. But on day eight I noticed significant shortness of breath. I went to Northside Hospital Forsyth and received the Regeneron monoclonal infusion, a collection of passive antibodies that could help fight this off.

A CT scan of my chest revealed bilateral Covid Pneumonia. I was sent home on multiple medicines but two days later, we were heading back down the mountain to Northside to be admitted after walking in the driveway and my oxygen level dropped to the mid-60s, according to the handy oximeter I picked up at the local drug store.

The only Northside Forsyth bed available for a COVID-positive patient at the time of my arrival was in the ICU, so I spent the night there, fortunate that Peggie was able to stay, although she was not allowed to leave my room.

There, they threw the kitchen sink at me. I am in “that age range” where the risk of severe COVID is higher. You know the number … over 65. And I have some other conditions that make me more susceptible to a poor outcome. So, the kitchen sink. Remdesivir. Tocilizumab. Zithromax. Vitamin D. Vitamin C. Dexamethasone. Lasix. Potassium. These doctors pulled out all the stops.

Within 24 hours, my oxygen levels were stable, and we made our escape, probably one of the few patients to be discharged directly from the ICU to home. I believe that the infusion a few days earlier finally started to make a difference, but there is not a doubt in my mind that the vaccine prevented me from having a much more prolonged course, a potentially devastating outcome.

That vaccine saved my life.

While I was there, a 41-year-old unvaccinated patient died from COVID-19. The COVID beds were filled with UN-vaccinated patients. I was the outlier, the only vaccinated patient I was aware of in-house at the time. No idea why really. This is a battle for all of us. It is not a fight that we will win individually.

When people get this vaccine, they are reducing the chance that they will get sick and that they will spread COVID-19 to someone who is, for whatever reason, susceptible.

Whether that susceptibility is due to their immune status, their choice not to get vaccinated, or anything else, matters not. Getting the vaccine demonstrates a sense of community, of caring.

But the variants that are here and those that will certainly be on the horizon are showing us that even the vaccinated can still pass this along. One of our house guests from that weekend has since become ill and tested positive, proof that you can’t know what you don’t know.

So … back to the masks and distancing so that I don’t make YOU sick. Because I would not wish even the less severe case that I had, on anyone.

Dr. Jim Morrow is the founder of Morrow Family Medicine, now Village Medical, and has been practicing medicine for almost 40 years. He is sharing his first-hand experience of having a breakthrough COVID-19 infection.