INDIANAPOLIS — When Mark Green, who has an underlying lung condition, left his appointment with pulmonologist Robert Klinestiver in July, the physician hoped he had convinced his patient to get a COVID-19 vaccine.
But Green, like so many in Indiana, had doubts, deep ones, about the vaccine, so strong that even an extensive talk with his doctor could not allay his fears.
When Green and Klinestiver next met about two months later, Green lay in bed in a critical care unit, battling a severe case of COVID. The 58-year-old New Palestine, Indiana, man greeted his physician wanly and sheepishly.
By this point, Green has no doubts about the vaccine.
Pausing to take deep breaths from the high flow oxygen device to which he was tethered, Green said he would like to tell everyone to "just go get the vaccine."
He said there's no reason to hesitate.
“I didn't take the vaccine myself because I was scared, the unknown, what would happen two or three years down the road,” Green said. “Once I got sick, I kind of realized, it didn’t matter what happens down the road. It matters what happens now. … You got to weigh the here and now or maybe never.”
'Pounds' of medicine pumped into him
Before, Green said he was worried about the “one little dose” of vaccine. Over the past 11 days in the hospital, though, he has had what he describes as “pounds” of medicine pumped into him to keep him alive. And, he said, he’s concluded that even if there are no guarantees that nothing will go wrong with the vaccine, it’s better to be vaccinated now and worry later.
On Friday, as Green's wife, Amy, and a nurse kept watchful eyes on the machine pinging out his heart rate and oxygen saturation level, Green recorded a video with IndyStar in the hopes that he could change at least one person’s mind about the vaccine.
Green has heard of other patients with his condition in the hospital hooked up to a ventilator and he's hopeful that won't happen to him.
The next few days could prove critical ones for Green, Klinestiver said. Some patients in his condition take a turn for the worse. Others continue to go in the right direction and eventually make it home.
Only time will tell.
Why wouldn't he get a vaccine?
Both Mark and Amy Green were against taking the vaccine. Amy still isn't sure.
They were worried about the unknown.
They discussed the pros and cons at length. They did not doubt COVID-19 was real; they know people who had been sickened by it, including Mark Green’s 88-year-old mother.
Health officials have said repeatedly the vaccine is safe and effective, preventing people from developing severe cases of COVID-19 and dying.
But for every argument the Greens heard in favor of the vaccine, it seemed, there was one against. Its development and approval just seemed rushed, Mark and Amy agreed. People had politicized it, and their politics fall on the Republican side of things. Not one doctor could promise him beyond a shadow of a doubt that problems with the vaccine would not arise in the future.
The Greens aren't alone in that thinking, despite the repeated efforts of both public and health officials.
Too often, Klinestiver says, his patients say politely "no thanks" when he tries to convince them to take the vaccine. While Klinestiver says he can understand much of this reluctance, he also knows the flip side of the vaccine: That hospitals have been filling up with COVID-19 patients, sometimes leaving little to no room for others to receive care.
And, almost all of these COVID-19 patients, particularly the very sick, have a singular thing in common: They were not vaccinated.
That frustrates him.
When the pandemic first hit, most of the sickest patients were elderly. Now Klinestiver said, the hospital is full of people in their 50s and 40s. Some in their 30s have even died.
“That’s the salt in this wound, you know,” he said. “It’s so hard to watch a person in their prime of their lives die.”
The Greens could not be swayed
The Greens had heard all these arguments, but nothing swayed them. Most people they know are not vaccinated. No one in their direct family — Mark, Amy, their five adult children — is vaccinated.
Mark’s 88-year-old mother had planned to get vaccinated, but four days before her appointment, she fell and broke her hip, setting off a cascade of health problems, including her own bout with COVID-19 while in rehab.
Neither Mark nor Amy think of themselves as being anti-vaccine. They just had qualms about this particular vaccine, many of which from the outside seem to be largely driven by false information.
The amount of conflicting information made it political, said Amy, who adds she has had flu and pneumonia shots in the past. With this vaccine, however, she said, she felt like the government and officials were shoving it down people’s throats and not giving individuals a choice in whether or not they wanted it.
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Best case scenario
Everything changed when Mark got the virus.
At first, he thought he had picked up a bad stomach virus that was going around. A few days later, though, a COVID-19 test revealed he was positive, and after four days, the virus settled in his chests and lungs.
Two weekends ago, their doctor told Amy she should plan to bring Mark to the hospital Sept. 13.
But that Sunday night, Mark was having too much trouble breathing, and the pulse oximeter they were using to track his progress showed his oxygen levels had dipped dangerously low. Amy didn’t wait. Nor did Mark protest.
“I just got to the point I didn’t care,” he said.
As of Friday, Mark had spent a week and a half in the hospital, and even under a best case scenario, he still has a long haul in front of him.
Mark's medical road ahead
Things could go either way for Mark. He might need that ventilator. He could also recover without it.
Before he can be discharged from the hospital, he will need to be weaned off his current high doses of oxygen, Klinestiver said. He will still be on oxygen when he leaves, just far less than what he’s on now. He will need to work on his legs, which have become debilitated during his illness.
Full recovery, if it comes, could take months, said Klinestiver, who had another patient in his 40s, perfectly healthy who ran every day. That patient spent two or three weeks in the hospital on high doses of oxygen, teetering on requiring a ventilator. He avoided that but spent six months on oxygen and only now is beginning to start running again.
Green accepts the path forward is a long one.
Now, he plans to do his part to persuade others not to wind up where he has been for the past 10 days. He thinks it's crazy the vaccine has been politicized.
“I’m not pro-vaccine. I’m pro-health,” he said. “The vaccine is what makes you healthy. You get the vaccine, it’s going to make you healthy, keep you healthy and not let this happen to you.”
Follow Shari Rudavsky on Twitter: @srudavsky.
This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Unvaccinated man hospitalized with COVID-19 urges others to vaccinate