It’s been months, but I still can’t help but think about him.
I met Mr. Franco * – a nursing student, as if by chance – about a year and a half ago when he came to my clinic with cancer that had spread to all parts of his body . He seemed destined to live only about a month.
Fortunately, however, he responded with unusual vigor to chemotherapy and quickly recovered: working part-time (albeit at home in an administrative role) and able to enjoy Thanksgiving and then Christmas with his. family.
Right after the holidays, however, he was admitted to the hospital with difficulty breathing. COVID-19 was ravaging his lungs. Although initially stable, her condition suddenly worsened after three days. I spoke to the team taking care of him on the phone several times that day. In less than 12 hours, he went from stable to critically ill, to critically ill, to death.
He is one of the three most hasty and terrifying deaths I have witnessed in 15 years of practice.
Just like that, his life was choked with the virus – even though he had been a monastic avoiding exhibitions.
He died just as the vaccines were about to be available, but it is entirely possible that he would not have received them even if he had received one.
You see, as her oncologist, I had spent the previous year giving her chemotherapy. My treatments undoubtedly prolonged her life but also depleted her immune system. Growing evidence shows that many such patients simply do not respond to the vaccine. Getting the vaccine, for them, is like plugging a computer into a broken outlet – nothing happens. And to make matters worse, cancer patients are already at abnormally high risk serious illness and death if they contract the virus.
It’s not just cancer patients who are vulnerable. Patients who are taking immunosuppressive drugs for any reason may be at similar risk (for example, those who have had an organ transplant and those who suffer from autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis or inflammatory bowel disease). It is also possible that older people – whose immune systems are simply not as strong as they used to be – may also have their immunity weakened more quickly (even after vaccination or previous infection).
The only way these patients can be effectively protected against COVID-19 is for the rest of us to get vaccinated and wear masks.
Of course, it might not surprise you to hear a doctor yelling at people to wear masks and get vaccinated. But my belief in the importance of this vital public health measure actually stems as much from my religious identity as from my medical identity.
And really, that shouldn’t come as a surprise at all.
Virtually all religious traditions, after all, emphasize our moral obligation to protect the vulnerable.
In my own tradition – The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints – Benjamin, a beloved ancient prophet-king, summed it up simply: “When you are at the service of your fellow men, you are only at the service of your God. “ A modern church leader, Apostle Dale Renlund, stressed that the second great commandment is to love our neighbors as ourselves and then reminded us that in the pandemic “it means social distancing, wearing a mask and do not gather in large groups ”. And, finally, speaking of vaccines in particular, several modern LDS leaders have advised that “the vaccines available have been shown to be safe and effective” and urged all who are eligible to receive them.
In the midst of this pandemic, vaccinations give those of us who are immunocompetent the chance to ride the wagons of our collective immunity around those whose immune systems are no longer functioning normally. Our sense of charity and responsibility can thus speed up the world to become safer again for medically vulnerable people.
To be clear, I am not questioning the motivations or charity of those who have not yet been vaccinated. Vaccines have become inexplicably politicized and find themselves in the eye of a swirling storm of disinformation. I know a lot of good people think that the virus itself is not dangerous or that vaccines pose a serious threat.
But my religion also teaches me that I have a moral obligation to research facts and seek to understand the world as it is – our scriptures teach that “the truth is the knowledge of things as they are, as they were and as they are to come”. Conspiracy theories, unsubstantiated rumors, and unfounded opinions are not the truth.
While recognizing that science never treats with certainty, we can rightly state great confidence in these two facts: 1) The virus has killed more than 670,000 Americans, or 1 in 500 people; and 2) mRNA vaccines work very well prevent serious infections and have been convincingly linked to the absence of side effects in adults.
Given this, we are left with this harsh reality: Even though your risk of serious illness from the virus is relatively low (and it may not be as low as you hoped, especially with the delta variant), getting vaccinated can be a powerful choice on behalf of vulnerable people. Likewise, the evidence shows masking, too, powerfully protects vulnerable people from this deadly disease.
In a time of such great suffering, with a plague that stalks the most medically at risk at every turn, we as a people cannot turn to hollow cries of “freedom” or a myopic focus on rights. personal. This is especially true for people of faith. While reasonable questions can be asked about the legality and ethics of the requirement for vaccines or masks, such mandates should, for us, be moot.
Our religious code – and our collective conscience – forces us to mask ourselves and get vaccinated because in doing so we protect those who cannot protect themselves.
May our masks be signs of compassion, and our crossed arms marks of kindness to those who cannot protect themselves.
For my patients and for all of us: Thank you for wearing a mask and getting vaccinated.
* Medically insignificant personal data has been modified to protect the identity of the deceased.
Tyler johnson is Clinical Assistant Professor of Medical Oncology at Stanford University School of Medicine, where he also helps lead the Oncology Fellowship Program. In The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, he served as bishop, institute teacher, ward service co-chair, Primary teacher, and member of a bishopric.
To fight disinformation, Johnson invites you to visit this link, where he published an independent 17-page summary of information regarding vaccine efficacy and safety. It has no commercial connection with any entity involved in the conceptualization, production or distribution of the vaccine and will not financially benefit anyone reading this or getting vaccinated.