Five days ago, Sandy's husband allowed the staff in the ICU to turn off her life support, and COVID claimed yet another.
Sandy and her husband lived in a cabin nestled into a mountainside in a small town in the Rockies, next door to my daughter Sarah. I met Sandy last March, when Larry and I and our daughter Carly visited.
I'd heard about Sandy, how she helped Sarah deal with encroaching wildfires right after she moved in. But she wasn't what I expected.
Sandy looked younger than her 70+ years and remarkably like Stevie Nicks, pretty and vibrant and warm, with glimmering white-blond hair and beautiful permanent makeup that accentuated her eyes. She was owl-like. Her husband reminded me a little of a rumpled, flannel-shirted Eddie Vedder, or James Taylor with much better hair, an aging yet striking rock star couple.
We all clicked. Two friends dropped by, and we held an impromptu seder on that first night of Passover. We sang the traditional songs to our new Christian friends – Dayenu, Let My People Go – then inexplicably listened to Led Zeppelin's "Ramble On" playing on repeat.
It was exciting to gather after months of lockdown. Vaccination had just begun, and so my husband and I, our ages a risk factor, were the only ones who were fully protected. The neighbors weren't, tragically believing their isolation would keep them safe, although Sandy's husband went into town for work.
We all tried to warn them.
Sandy knew I was a biologist and wanted to know more about the vaccines, so I explained how they work. I told her that I couldn't imagine how a vaccine could be more harmful than the threat of what the virus could do. She asked insightful questions, many of them, but still looked skeptical.
And that triggered my younger daughter.
Carly tried to hold it in, but couldn't. And so she tearfully poured out what she had seen from her sixth-story window in Astoria, Queens during those horrid months as winter turned to spring in 2020, as the white-shrouded bodies were stacked up at the ambulance bay of the hospital right next door, like bleachers of death. It's an image she nor the rest of our family can never unsee.
But to Sandy, in her cabin in the woods, an inner city hospital must have seemed a million miles away. In March 2020, the mantra "it can't happen here" was still playing in many parts of the country.
Sandy remained unconvinced. Unvaxxed. I can only imagine where she got her information. Sarah persisted in offering to take her to get vaccinated, through the summer. But then Sandy cut her off completely over the issue, silencing Sarah's good intentions. Until that time, Sandy and I had talked and texted. We liked the same books, bands, and TV shows. We bonded. I considered her a friend.
Two weeks ago, Sandy got COVID. Her husband had brought it home.
I knew that Sandy wasn't stupid and that she knew biology – during the conversation on Passover she'd mentioned mitosis, cell structure, DNA. I see now that when it came to vaccination, she was simply scared. And her fear and denial cost her her life.
Statistics on the never-ending pandemic become obsolete almost as soon as they are compiled these days. It is undeniable that most COVID deaths are among the unvaxxed. There's no more hiding in the woods, especially now with omicron and its off-the-charts transmissibility.
Still, an astounding fifteen percent of the overall US population refuses vaccination, the percentages distributed unevenly among the states.
It is unfathomable to me that anyone could compare the graphs of hospitalizations for the protected versus the unprotected, the vaxxed a line hugging the X axis at the bottom and the unvaxxed a hockey stick of frightening exponential growth, and remain unconvinced.
I'll admit that I never saw this coming, the vaccine hesitancy that has catalyzed COVID, not only enabling a deadly virus but giving it room to evolve. The pandemic wasn't a surprise, as I suspect it wasn't to many other biologists. And I've always thought herd immunity – not a new idea – was more a theoretical ideal than an achievable goal in the real world. But I never imagined the politicization of a national public health crisis stemming from an infectious disease, nor the fear that spawns willful ignorance.
I'm trying now to understand why Sandy died, why she thought the government was trying to take away a "right" by offering, at no cost, something that could prevent her death. It's too late for Sandy, but perhaps someone will read this post and go roll up a sleeve. I can't wrap my head around the glaring fact that thousands have made the same stubborn choice as Sandy.
But Sarah found some closure the day after Sandy died, last Sunday. She and a friend were hiking in the spectacular mountains that are the backdrop to the log homes, some built onto cabins going back a century. She texted us images of a tree with a small, perfect, owl sitting on a lower branch.
"Last night! It was so beautiful, little, white, we got really close to her and she just stared right back for awhile. I know this sounds crazy but it felt like Sandy coming to see me! I really felt that and cried and said everything I wanted to say to Sandy, that I was sorry she was misled, sorry she suffered. And when I finished, she flew off."
So RIP Sandy from the Mountains who looked like Stevie Nicks.
"And I saw my reflection in the snow-covered hills
'Til the landslide brought me down."
May your story save lives. We have the tools to hold off the landslide.
Originally posted at my blog DNA Science at Public Library of Science.