As some health-care workers balk at taking an FDA-approved COVID-19 vaccine with fewer known side effects than eating Chicken McNuggets, we should remember and honor the thousands of frontline heroes who died risking their lives to save others.
Those fallen health-care workers were as brave in the pandemic as any soldiers in war and they prominently include a 49-year-old Pennsylvannia ICU nurse named Deanna Reber. Her final message to us was imparted in an obituary penned by her 27-year-old daughter.
“Deanna’s dying wish was that everyone get vaccinated so we can protect our loved ones from COVID-19,” the daughter, Kelseyleigh Hepler, wrote.
Deanna had made sure that she got the vaccine as soon as it became available, and her husband and daughter and two sons did the same. She remained as cautious, seldom going anywhere but home or the ICU at Reading Hospital, where she had been giving her all for a quarter-century.
“That was not her career, that was her passion and her calling,” Kelseyleigh said.
But Deanna was a cancer survivor with other challenges to her immune system, and she continued to be exposed to COVID every workday.
“There was no talking her out of working in the ICU,” Kelseyleigh recalled. “She felt she had to be there for the patients and for the other nurses.”
In April, Deanna began to feel ill and tested positive for COVID-19. She was one of the relatively rare breakthrough cases among the vaccinated.
“I say that when she got sick it came as a shock for all of is,” Kelseyleigh said. “It’s very likely that she got it working, trying to save patients’ lives who had it.”
Now Deanna was the patient, not the nurse.
“It was extremely hard for her,” Kelseyleigh said. “She had a lot of struggle during that time in terms of pain and discomfort and ups and down, having hope and feeling things were getting better and then feeling that hope taken away.”
She fought on with one primary goal.
“Through it all, her refrain was ‘I want to get back to work,’” Kelseyleigh said.
And that mantra was joined by another.
“Vaccine was a constant refrain from her,” the daughter recalled. “She was absolutely 100 percent behind the vaccine.”
Deanna emphasized to everyone that it was extremely rare for a vaccinated person to become seriously ill with COVID. She insisted that nobody should use her infection to cast doubt on the vaccine.
“Her response was always [that] you can’t use her as a case study for not getting the vaccine,” Kelseyleigh said. “She was literally one in a million case; .0002 percent of people who get vaccinated struggle the way she did. It had to do with her immune system. It was like she had no immune system. It was almost like she never got the vaccine in some ways.”
Deanna noted that it is not at all rare for unvaccinated people to become critically ill. She said that COVID was a life and death issue, and should never have become a political one. She said that everyone should get the vaccine for reasons that extend beyond self-preservation to others and therefore your personal choice.
“It’s not for you, it’s for your loved ones, it’s for your neighbors,” Kelseyleigh said.
Among the anti-vaxxers and the fearful hesitant who fail to grasp this simple, all-American principle are myopic health-care workers who continue to shun the shot even at the prospect of losing their jobs. A number of them and their supporters have staged protests in big cities such as Los Angeles and New York and smaller municipalities such Doylestown, Pennsylvania, where 200 demonstrators stood outside the local hospital in August, holding American flags and signs calling for “Medical Freedom.”
The Philadelphia Inquirer reports that only half of the state’s health-care workers have submitted proof of vaccination, although the number who have actually gotten the shot is likely higher and is expected to significantly increase as more facilities and jurisdictions impose mandates.
In New York, a statewide mandate caused the percentage of vaccinated health-care workers to jump from 84 percent to 92 percent in just five days, and Gov. Kathy Hochul may not have to send in the National Guard soldiers who were put on alert to serve as fill-ins for those who refuse to comply.
Tower Health, the parent company for Reading Hospital, where Deanna worked, has also issued a mandate, but it won’t go into effect for that facility until Jan. 17. Meanwhile, little more than half the people in Reading and surrounding Berks County have been vaccinated— even as new COVID cases surged 10 percent this week.
For a time, Deanna was treated in Reading Hospital ICU where she had worked before getting infected. She had to be admitted under a code name, Netherlands 13, because she was so widely loved in the hospital that a crowd would have come to see her.
“If they put her name in, every single person would have beaten down the door,” Kelseyleigh said.
As Deanna’s fellow nurses cared for her, Kelseyleigh got a first look at her mother’s calling in action.
“I really didn't appreciate the nature of the work until she was the patient and I was able to observe it myself,” the daughter said. “I honestly had no idea. Their work goes beyond caretaking as medical professionals. It is a matter of protecting the dignity of somebody in their most vulnerable moments.”
She added, “It reinforced to me how important health-care workers are.”
Despite everyone’s best efforts, Deanna’s condition deteriorated to where she needed a lung transplant.
“I knew I was in the line of fire as an ICU nurse, but that is who I am, the career I chose. COVID is not a joke and it is not a political ploy,” she wrote on Facebook on Aug. 6. “It is killing people. Now I am facing a double lung transplant and God knows how long away from family and friends. Please be careful out there!”
Deanna was flown to Philadelphia for screening, but the tests indicated she was too ill for the surgery. “Keep the prayers coming,” she wrote in her final Facebook post, breaking the news that there would be no lifesaving transplant.
She was returned to the hospital in Reading and asked everybody who had been treating her to assemble her room.
“She emphasized to her doctors and nurses that they had given her the best possible care,” Kelseyleigh said. “She wanted them to know that and not have any regrets.”
Deanna was sent home with the expectation she had only two or three days to live. The medical team attending to her managed to keep her alive for another three weeks.
“They were caring for one of their own,” Kelseyleigh said.
At the end, Deanna was still thinking not of herself but of others. She made the dying wish that her daughter repeated in the obituary in The Reading Eagle. The newspaper voiced it again in a subsequent article. And as fearful health-care workers were quitting rather than risk what is no real risk at all, Deanna was pointing us toward the only way we will ever rid ourselves of COVID as we have smallpox and polio.
Deanna was speaking for all the brave and noble health-care workers who have given their lives in this fight. And she was telling us to do our part not just for ourselves, but for those we love.