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Why one Berea family changed their minds about getting the COVID-19 vaccine

“COVID took a lot from me,” said one Northeast Ohio woman. “I wish I would have gotten the shot, I’m mad at myself."

CLEVELAND — It's estimated there are about 93 million Americans who are eligible for the COVID vaccine, but have chosen not to get it. Their reasons are as diverse as they are- but one local couple wants to share their story of why they changed their minds.

Sarah Keil has regrets.

“COVID took a lot from me,” she says fighting back tears. “I wish I would have gotten the shot, I’m mad at myself because of what I put myself and my family through.”

The Berea woman has a mild form of Multiple Sclerosis and became eligible for the vaccine earlier this year. However, the potential side effects made her wary and even encouragement from the National MS Society would not sway her decision.

“I was against it, I wanted to do more research, so I’m not getting it,” she remembers.

Her husband, Gerald, who works in law enforcement, also refused the shot, but for different reasons.

“I’m like, who would pay people to get a vaccine?  I thought it was government overreach,” Gerald says.

But luck ran out this past summer when the virus infected Sarah.

It started with breathing trouble and prompted a trip to Cleveland Clinic Fairview Hospital’s Emergency Department.  Doctors diagnosed her with pneumonia, administered steroids, and sent her home with instructions and a pulse oximeter- a small device she would put on the tip of her finger to check the oxygen levels in her blood.

“If your oxygen goes down to the low 90s, come back in,” she remembers being told.

How long did it take to reach that point?

“Six days,” Sarah said. It dropped into the seventies.

Gerald took her right back to Fairview Hospital as Sarah’s condition worsened rapidly. After two days, she needed to be put into a medically induced coma and placed on a ventilator.

It was at that point Gerald realized the seriousness of COVID-19 and immediately went to get vaccinated.  He chose the Johnson & Johnson vaccine where he only required one dose.  His wife’s case was so critical that Gerald could not be with her in the hospital.  Their daughter received her vaccine too. 

“Every night we would bring our whole family over here and the nurses would facetime with us,” Gerald recalls.  But he always wondered if Sarah could hear her family talking to her. 

Sarah didn’t remember much, but something did get through.

“I do remember hearing one time them talking to me when I was out of it and that was them telling me to push through,” Sarah said.

Twice though, the medical team called Gerald requesting he come to her bedside because they feared she was at end of life.  Sarah does remember, "There were a lot of times where I didn't think I was going to make it."

"She was very sick with the most severe form of COVID infection that one could suffer from," said Cleveland Clinic Fairview Hospital Critical Care physician Narendrakumar Alappan, MD. "We know fully vaccinated people with a vaccine breakthrough infection are less likely to develop serious illness than those who are unvaccinated and get COVID-19."

The medical team put Sarah on her stomach for sixteen hours a day.  It’s called ‘proning’ and helps keep fluid from collecting in the lungs.  Thankfully that, and a combination of medications eventually worked.

Finally, Sarah was transferred to the rehab hospital in Avon, Ohio, on July 23. Ultimately, she was removed from the ventilator and given a voice box to communicate until she could regain her ability to talk. Motivated to get home, she worked to relearn how to walk and eat on her own. She went home on August 4 and has continued rehabilitation.

Sarah says she still suffers from PTSD and anxiety related to her experience. She also believes the lingering effects of COVID will prevent her from returning to her banking job.  She hopes others learn from her and understand, if it happened to her, it could happen to anyone.

As soon as she was able, Sarah received both doses of her COVID-19 vaccine. Her family members have now been vaccinated, too.

"Don't be like me," she implores. "I encourage people to go get the vaccine. The little side effects, if you do get them, are far less than what you go through with COVID. I don’t wish upon anyone what I went through.  I want people to know how important it is to get vaccinated. Protect yourself and protect others."

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Editor's note: The video in the player above is from a previously published, unrelated story.