Donna Anders had reason to be cautious about the COVID-19 vaccine when it was first introduced.
A wife and mother with multiple sclerosis, she understood from her doctor in Sylva, North Carolina, to take a “wait and see” approach until it became clearer how the vaccine might affect her. Her immune system was already compromised from the multiple sclerosis.
Anders, 32, had a full life. Besides being mom to 7-year-old daughter Madison, Anders had started a new job at a casino in the mountain town of Cherokee and also modeled as a side gig. Her husband, Christopher, is a disabled veteran, so her income was essential to the family.
Anders scheduled a time to get the COVID-19 vaccine as its safety became clear. But at work the day before her vaccine date, she began to sweat and feel as if she might pass out. After a night alternating between sweats and chills, she realized it was getting harder to breathe.
Anders spent four days in the emergency department at a Sylva hospital packed with patients. Her condition grew so serious that she was airlifted to Novant Health Presbyterian Medical Center in Charlotte.
She was alert enough to feel frightened as the helicopter took off. She gazed out the window of the swaying aircraft as it sped across the mountains towards the city. Before long, Christopher and Madison were far away.
The flight would be the beginning of a two-month fight for her life.
Afraid to die on a ventilator
Anders’ initial treatment at Novant Health included a BiPap machine (which can be attached as a mask or with nasal plugs) to improve her oxygen level. She wasn’t yet able to have visitors. A kind nurse offered encouragement and admired photos of Madison with Anders.
Dr. Jeffrey Walls, Anders’ pulmonologist with Novant Health Pulmonary & Critical Care - Midtown, soon determined that Anders’ lung inflammation was so severe, she would need to be transferred to the intensive care unit and go on a ventilator. Her pneumonia, a common complication with COVID, was worsening despite the therapy she had received.
Anders was terrified at the news. Many patients on a ventilator – a breathing machine also known as life support – are so sick at that point that they don't survive. She refused to go to the ICU three times. Her medical team explained: Without the ventilator, you may be dead by morning.
She called Christopher and her mom. Thinking she might never see her family and friends again, she delivered a harrowing Facebook Live post from her hospital bed. "I got a 7-year-old little girl. She needs her mommy. Please, please pray for me. I don't want to die."
Once on the ventilator, Anders spent four days under sedation, which is the easiest way to tolerate the device. "We do everything we can to keep patients off the ventilator, so those who do require intubation are generally the sickest patients of all," Walls said.
While being placed on a ventilator means that the patient’s condition has progressed to a very advanced phase, there’s still hope for recovery, Walls emphasized. About 20 to 25 percent of patients on a ventilator at Novant Health “are eventually able to come off and leave the ICU,” he said. Anders was among them.
Anders had never been away from Madison before. She finally got to FaceTime with her daughter when she was moved to a new hospital floor after two weeks in the ICU. “It was really rough,” Anders said. “She was scared. She didn’t want anything for her birthday except for me to come home.”
Stop the spread. Get vaccinated,
Along with the ventilator, Anders needed a combination of the strongest treatments available, including anti-inflammatory steroids, a potent anti-inflammatory called Tocilizumab, and inhaled nitric oxide.
She also required a tracheostomy, a procedure which allows a tube to be placed directly in the windpipe in patients who are recovering but still require a ventilator. The tracheostomy allows doctors to give patients periods of breathing on their own, with the ability to put them back on the ventilator easily when needed.
Anders spent a total of 60 days in the hospital. Once out of the ICU, Anders let herself have moments where she believed she would be OK. But much of the time, she still feared what could happen. “I was constantly watching my oxygen level and my heart rate,” she said. “My anxiety was really bad.” Her mom visited her during the week and Christopher came on the weekends, enlisting his parents to look after Madison in his absence.
Anders and her family weren’t the only people worried about her condition. The nurse who comforted Anders on her first day in the hospital happened to walk by her new room. The nurse teared up, ran to Anders, and burst out joyfully, “You’re alive!” Until then, she had thought Anders had died and imagined the girl she had seen in photos now was a motherless child.
Walls praised the professionals from all the hospital departments who contributed to Anders’ care, from radiology and pharmacy to respiratory, physical and occupational therapy. “It takes a large team,” he said, “to care for these complex patients.”
When her final COVID-19 test came back negative and she was cleared to go home, Anders decided she had one important task to complete. She agreed to do an interview with WSOC-TV from her hospital bed about her experience with COVID-19.
Afterward, a viewer reached out to thank Anders. Seeing her on the news had convinced him to get vaccinated. “Smart people need to get vaccinated to protect themselves, their children, and other people's children,” Anders said. “It has nothing to do with the government. It has nothing to do with politics. And masks really do work. They really do help stop the spread of COVID.”
She said it’s difficult for anyone who hasn’t experienced serious COVID-19 to understand the magnitude of the illness. But she will never forget the days on a ventilator, wondering if she would live to see her daughter grow up. She’ll never forget lying in her hospital bed day after day hearing the “Code Blue” emergency call again and again, summoning help for other patients with COVID-19.
“You don’t want to experience what I went through,” she said. She still wakes up at night with flashbacks.
Full recovery will take many more weeks, as Anders’ oxygen level still drops when she stands. She hopes to return to work in November or December.
For now, she’s grateful to be alive and able to take pleasure in small things. In the hospital, for a month she could only dab her mouth with drops of water rather than take a drink. Peering out the door of her room she’d see others casually drinking water as they walked past and think: You have no idea how lucky you are. That first long drink of water was “so pure,” she marveled.
She’s grateful for the big things, too. She came home from the hospital in time for Madison’s 8th birthday.