Sophie Mason was being moved out of intensive care when Dr. Aaron Pulsipher gently asked why she’d skipped the COVID-19 vaccine.
He was curious, she said: The Tucson Medical Center emergency room was overflowing that August day with people who were unvaccinated and sick, she recalls him telling her, while other unvaccinated patients were dying in the ICU, and he was trying to make sense of it all.
“I felt ticked off with myself and was feeling kind of stupid,” Mason says about not getting vaccinated when the shot became available, and then becoming so sick she needed a ventilation tube.
“I never thought it would be this bad. Everyone said when they got it, it was just a mild cold.”
Mason, 33, and her husband, Tim, 39, are parents of four children. Tim Mason, also unvaccinated, was the first to get sick with COVID-19 in early August. He had a breathing tube almost six weeks and just came home a week ago, while Sophie Mason was intubated for eight days and hospitalized about two weeks.
The trauma for the family was overwhelming, Sophie said. While in the ICU, Tim coded — nearly died — twice.
“Not getting a vaccine put our kids through a traumatic experience,” Sophie said. “It’s something a 12-year-old shouldn’t have to deal with, a 10-year-old shouldn’t have to deal with. For eight days, they had no idea if I was going to make it and that’s something no child should ever have to face.”
Looking back, she says it’s strange to consider what happened, and why. She says they are not opposed to vaccines. In fact, their kids, two biological and two adopted, have received all the typical childhood shots.
For some reason, however, the COVID-19 vaccine seemed different. They didn’t take it seriously.
Her brother and sister-in-law had COVID-19 and were asymptomatic, she said, and her parents got it and it was like a seasonal cold. Now she knows the disease is completely unpredictable, and terrifying.
“Part of the reason I didn’t get it immediately is that it was confusing,” she said of things she’d read online. “There was so much information.”
‘Miraculous they pulled through’
The virus that causes COVID-19 has killed nearly 5 million people worldwide, 734,000 in the United States and over 20,000 in Arizona so far. The Moderna and Pfizer vaccines reduce the risk of severe disease and hospitalization by more than 91%, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report.
That’s the information TMC intensive care nurse Jenny Tuttle wants people to know, not the widely shared misinformation that’s preventing people from getting the shots that could save their lives and prevent the ICU nightmares she witnesses daily.
Tuttle was relieved to hear Sophie Mason wanted to share her story.
“The community doesn’t need to hear from one more health-care worker about the need to get vaccinated,” she said. “They need to hear it from the survivors.”
And survivors are exactly what they are, according to Pulsipher, a pulmonary and critical care physician at TMC who says the Masons are “very fortunate to be alive.”
“It’s miraculous they both pulled through,” he said, “given how sick they were.”
During the time the Masons were at TMC in August, another couple, older and also parents, died from COVID-19 infections.
Such losses are devastating for the staff, said Tuttle, unit manager for adult critical care with 32 years of experience in intensive care treatment. It’s also extremely frustrating, she said, considering there is now a vaccine that could prevent the suffering and the deaths.
“Now that you can do something about it, it’s no longer just our responsibility,” she said of people avoiding the worst of the disease. “It’s also your responsibility.”
Three people in her ICU died of COVID last week, she said, and she estimates at least 50 have died over the last few months. All of them were unvaccinated.
Sophie and Tim Mason, for their part, were four rooms apart in that unit, Tuttle said, and for days she feared the worst: that the couple’s children were going to lose one or both parents.
Pulsipher said one of the worst things about his job during the pandemic has been sitting down with what he describes as seemingly countless families, ones not as fortunate as the Masons, and telling them that their loved one is dying.
“I’ve never cried more with families,” he said, “than I have this last year.”
What he wishes? That people would stop politicizing COVID-19 and, especially, the vaccine that prevents its worst effects.
“There’s nothing political about it to me,” he said, “when a patient comes in, dying of COVID-19.”
‘Not going to take any more chances’
Sophie Mason wants others to avoid their experience of being so sick, of being intubated, of having their lives disrupted so completely. She hopes people who are skipping the vaccine rethink it.
She is now fully immunized, and her husband will be getting his shots in a few weeks.
“I’m not going to take any more chances,” she said, then referred to their children: “Their lives are more important than others’ opinions.”
Mason is feeling back to normal now, although she still does occasionally get short of breath. She initially was using oxygen at home, but now she doesn’t need it.
Letting go of the trauma is taking a bit more time.
The things she remembers: Looking at Tim’s fingernails and seeing lines of blue — indicating low oxygen levels; the 3 a.m. call about Tim first being intubated; and then, a few days later, her own admission to the hospital.
It was a Saturday, she said, and the ER was “backed up and overflowing.”
Medical staffers had to rush oxygen out to her in the lobby.
“I don’t remember much after that,” she said. “I just slept most of the time.”
As for Tim? She said the medical team did all they could to save his life, even when it seemed there was no hope. They pushed on and on, she said. She is very grateful for that, and for all the people who prayed for him, for them.
“To me, I’m a Christian and it was completely God,” she said. Thousands of people connected to her faith community, the Door Church, as well as people she knew when her family were missionaries, all prayed for her husband, she said.
“The chances of me surviving were low but for Tim to survive? It’s just miraculous,” she said. “He was literally on the brink of death.”