COVID long-hauler wants to reach out to anti-vaxxers

Sarah Mitchell never gasped for air while hiking the rugged West Coast Trail or while plunging into the ocean off Willows Beach in January, but since contracting COVID-19, she has to use an inhaler just to climb the stairs.

“I’m a 27-year-old woman with the lung trauma of a 60-year-old smoker,” the Saanich woman said.

Mitchell, a communications officer for the B.C. government and a freelance writer, tested positive for COVID on April 19, after her fiance, Louis Dillon, fell ill. Contact tracers weren’t able to find the source of transmission.

“We just got really unlucky,” she said.

On the worst days, she was bedridden with fatigue and was breathless.

“I thought I might die.”

Her case was regarded as moderate by medical professionals, and she was never hospitalized. But she and Dillon felt the cold slap of mortality. “I was scared.” Dillon has since returned to work, but Mitchell has not.

“My life has imploded,” she said.

“It’s pretty bad. Really bad. It’s taken over my life.”

Mitchell said she has been ill in the past but “nothing life-altering.”

Too ill to accept the offer of a “dream job,” she has been on medical leave for months.

When smoke from wildfires hit ­Victoria, she was bedridden for days, she said. She suffers from anxiety and brain fog. “It makes me feel stupid.”

On Friday, the province reported 671 new cases of COVID-19, including 44 in Island Health. There were 14 people in hospital with COVID in Island Health, and all but two were critically ill in intensive care.

Mitchell wishes her experience with the deadly and highly infectious virus could enlighten the anti-vaccination ­protesters who swarmed B.C.’s ­legislature and hospitals in Nanaimo, Duncan, Vancouver and other B.C. cities this week in ugly protests denounced by Premier John Horgan, the Union of B.C. Municipalities and others.

Mitchell said she’s torn between ­frustration and a need to reach out before the divide grows larger.

“We wonder how we reached a time when science isn’t trusted, but reviled; when medical marvels aren’t ­celebrated, but stigmatized; and when illness is seen as preferable to the cure,” Mitchell wrote in an opinion article.

“Like many of us, my gut reaction to anti-vaxxers is one of rage. Disgust. Anger.”

Mitchell said she has unvaccinated family members. She doesn’t ­support their position or understand their ­reasoning, especially considering they have a front-row seat to her daily ­battles, but she loves them deeply, and they love her.

“In the same breath, I want to smash egg yolks down the skulls of protesters who accosted a nurse as she was leaving a twelve-hour shift,” wrote Mitchell.

“When I hear that anti-vaxxers blocked an ambulance, I ­imagine COVID tearing through the crowd like an all-you-can-eat bacterial buffet. When a family member mentions they’re unvaccinated, I want to ask them if they care whether I live or die.”

Mitchell is going to a post-COVID recovery clinic at St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver in two weeks, but sometimes she despairs that she’ll never recover.

If she were to speak with an anti-vaxxer, she said, she would ask them where they get their information, and what they hope to gain from harassing health-care workers.

Angrily attacking anti-vaxxers only convinces them they’re oppressed, and that they’re right, she said.

“We can’t collectively heal with two factions so ­diametrically opposed,” said Mitchell. “Fostering change is an act of empathy, not violence, and our cause needs us to do ­better.”

Modern science will lead us out of this pandemic, said Mitchell, but patience and kindness is needed to heal the divide.

She said she wants to call anti-vaxxers “in, not out.” “I’d like to ask about your beliefs and challenge them, respectfully. I’d like you to hear mine. I’d like to tell you what it means to be a COVID long-hauler.

“And I’d like to ask others in my corner — that is, the vaccinated — to do the same.”

Dr. Bonnie Henry, provincial health officer, was asked about “lock her up” chants during anti-vaccine-passport protests this week and said it’s something she has been living with throughout the pandemic. “What upsets me is the amount of vitriol and anger that has been directed at others in public health and at my team, and at my staff. That’s inexcusable and very upsetting.”

In the aftermath of the protests, health-care workers have been inundated with messages of support, both online and at their worksites.

Workers arriving at Victoria General Hospital on Friday saw inspirational messages written in chalk on the sidewalk, including: “Victoria loves you, thank you for being so brave.”

Staff also received a bag of candy and a note reminding health-care workers that the vast majority of the public are horrified by the protests and appreciate their efforts.

ceharnett@timescolonist.com

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