The Coronavirus cold season spike that Drs. Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx warned us about, has arrived. The numbers of deaths and infections change so rapidly that it seems almost like the nation is looking at an odometer spinning out of control. On its current trajectory, the viruses death toll will reach 350,000 by early January.
The country is now averaging nearly 3,000 COVID-19 deaths daily. And it’s a miracle, said Denver resident Deborah Sanchez, that her sister, Wanda Vigil, is not one of them. But for more than two months, it was a waiting game filled with endless tears, worst case fears and an abundance of prayer.
Vigil is now home trying to regain her strength along with the nearly forty pounds she lost while fighting for her life at Lakewood’s Saint Anthony Hospital. Vigil spent 69 days in the hospital, more than 40 on a ventilator. Almost all in a medically induced coma.
“We talk a million times during the day,” said Sanchez of her sister. But on October 5th, there was something in her sister’s voice that raised concern. “She said she was having a hard time getting air…that she had to up her oxygen and that her chest hurt,” Sanchez said. By the next morning, things had worsened, and her sister’s temperature hit 104. They needed to get her to the hospital.
At the hospital doctors examined Vigil and saw a very sick woman, a woman coughing, struggling to breath, and running a dangerously high fever. But instead of admitting her, they sent her home. Two days later, on the seventh, the hospital called confirming COVID-19. By October 9th, the family was desperate. Vigil was growing weaker, sicker, and still running a triple-digit fever. They took her back to Saint Anthony’s and this time she was admitted. Six hours later, she was on a ventilator where she remained for the next 42 days.
But while Vigil was in the hospital fighting for her life, the virus was targeting new victims, thirteen in the Sanchez and Vigil extended family. Its first victim was Vigil’s daughter, Felicia, who Sanchez suspects contracted it at work. In a matter of days, it found new hosts, both adults and young children. The virus affected adult family members at different levels, some severely. The children, said Sanchez, remained asymptomatic. Sanchez said the COVID left her with pneumonia in a lung. “It took us forty days to get over this virus,” she said. Recovery for others is a work in progress.
With family members dealing with the virus at home, Vigil, despite what Sanchez said was extraordinary care by staff at Saint Anthony’s, was moving ominously in the other direction, one where doctors called the family to discuss end of life options.
Which day exactly, she didn’t say or couldn’t remember, but the phone call from the hospital was unforgettable. “They said, ‘we need to disconnect,’” Sanchez remembered. ‘No,’ was the family’s firm and unequivocal response. “Wanda is a very strong-willed and powerful woman,” Sanchez told the doctor. “I just didn’t feel in my heart that Wanda was leaving us.” The hospital relented. Nearly helpless, the family did the only thing it could. It turned to prayer. “Prayers were coming from everybody---family, friends, churches, you name it. She got prayers worldwide.”
As Vigil fought for her life, her brother, Geno Rael, a well-known musician who is the leader of the Mighty Nice Band has played in Denver and Colorado for years, was chronicling her story on Facebook. A person following it from out of state mailed Sanchez anointing oil. “I blessed myself with this oil,” said Sanchez, and prayed to Saint Sharbel (also Charbel), the patron saint of miracles. When she was finally able to visit her sister, she “anointed her body with the oil and started exercising her legs.” Whether it was the oil or not, “a couple of days later, my sister was able to move her legs and arms.” Sanchez said Vigil “had been paralyzed” during her hospital stay.
Sanchez visits her sister each day and helps with her rehabilitation along with anything else that might make her sister’s recovery just a little easier. The days of being unconscious and on a ventilator took a toll. It now takes every bit of her strength just to navigate from her bed to the bathroom, said Sanchez. Also, because of the nearly seven weeks on a ventilator, Vigil’s voice now registers just above a whisper forcing Sanchez to lean in and listen carefully. But her sister, she said, is determined to return as close as she can to her pre-COVID life. “I’m going to work as hard as I can,” vowed Vigil.
Sanchez said despite being in a comatose state for seven weeks, her sister “talked about her dreams.” What she described, Sanchez said, was ‘crossing over’ and seeing her parents. “They looked so beautiful,” Vigil told her. In her retelling, Vigil said her parents instructed her to “make yourself strong…you can make it, hita.” Her parents, she swears, were with her every day. “They never left my side.”
The number of U.S. COVID-19 deaths on October 9th---the day Vigil was admitted to the hospital---was slightly more than 217,000. That number has soared by more than 100,000 since and, despite a vaccine now available, shows no sign of abating. As Sanchez thinks about the numbers, she is grateful that her sister is not among them but knows also that she very nearly was.
Sanchez is grateful to everyone who cared for her sister for each of the 69 days spent in the hospital. “They were great,” she said. The ordeal, her sister’s and the thirteen family members also gave her a new perspective on the virus. Not everyone who contracts the virus, said Sanchez, is going to survive. That’s why she tells everyone she knows to practice common sense. “I tell them to wear a mask and wash your hands.” She also shares her sister’s story. In it, she calls her sister, “our Christmas miracle.”