When Maria McConnell started writing human interest stories for Lakewood high school newspaper, she never thought she would later become the center of one. McConnell, professor of marketing and hospitality/tourism management classes at LCCC for the past 36 years, found herself on the wrong side of health back in 2014 when she discovered she had lung cancer.
The decision was clear, and McConnell soon had surgery to remove one of her lungs. For her, “It was definitely a challenge, but I was doing okay.” Breathing got a little harder, and life became slightly difficult, but McConnell still pushed through strong.
That all changed in 2020 when the COVID – 19 pandemic happened. “Every time I hear respiratory, I get a little nervous because of my condition so when COVID – 19 hit, I was really worried,” McConnell recalled. Her jocular warming tone quickly turned serious as she progressed into the story. “I got Moderna for my vaccine as well as took all the other precautions, you know double masks and social distancing,”
McConnell, very vocal with her hands, counted off the different types lazily before saying “I was really starting to feel like a recluse,” and was so “hesitant of catching something so I never went anywhere unless I had to.”
Small trips to the curbside pick-ups at grocery stores became the number one social outing for McConnell until Labor Day 2021. “I started to get a scratchy throat I remember” and at first, she feared it was a late summer cold.
Her family suggested she get a COVID – 19 test just to be safe. At this point, McConnell’s fidgeting hands quickened and her voice seemed to slightly betray her. “The results came back and I was COVID – 19 positive,” the words feeling taboo on her lips. “When I got that positive test, my immediate first thought was where was I that I had let my guard down? And the worst part was, did I give it to anyone?”
That was when she realized the last person, she was with was her elderly mother. Even when still talking about the worry of giving COVID 19 to her mom, McConnell gets teary-eyed. “I was devastated. I immediately made sure she was okay, which she was, but I was still just so scared for her and myself.” The fear didn’t stop at contracting COVID – 19, but rather bled into other people’s opinions of her, “I was afraid to tell people,” she laughed, “Afraid of what they’ll say or think.”
Thankfully, McConnell suffered mildly, having the most intense and weird part being her loss of smell and some added difficulty breathing. McConnell tilted her head slightly as she answered, “Has it affected my breathing? I think so, my symptoms of labored breathing have definitely intensified,” but she continued that the vaccine and the Regeneron fusion truly saved her life. “Had I not been vaccinated, my doctor told me I would have ended up in the ICU 50% on a ventilator and 50% on my way to the morgue.”
Harry Kestler Ph.D., an HIV virology and microbiology professor at LCCC, agrees with McConnell as well as provided his opinion on why the vaccine, while helpful, still failed enough for her to have contracted COVID-19. Kestler explained that McConnell’s infection is “what’s called a breakthrough infection and those happen especially to people who are less immune.”
According to Kestler, people who are immunocompromised may not always build up adequate levels of protection after an initial two-dose primary of any COVID-19 vaccine series. In addition to prior sickness, age, former surgeries and even stress can cause lapses in the vaccine because of its lack of sterilizing ability.
Kestler noted that timing could be an issue as well. “The booster shot is designed to protect ourselves and each other as well as cut off a virus at its source which is why vaccines are so important.
NPR Health’s Rob Stein said something similar to Kestler, noting “the COVID-19 vaccines are very effective, but they’re not perfect which is why the CDC has reported more than 10,000 breakthrough cases.”
Mental Health’s Control
Still for McConnell and many others throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the physical did not compare to the mental struggles. The mental taxation was much more challenging than the physical for her and believes it’s a “whole other area of COVID 19.”
Despite the physical complications that could have led to the vaccine failure, Kestler agreed with McConnell on the status of mental health. “I think the entire world is a little bit clinically depressed right now,” he noted, adding, “there is a direct connection to the immune system and mental state. “Personally, I don’t think this mental stress is surprising.”
Kestler explained that the Placebo effect is a real thing and that its mental control over people’s brains often lead to physical control over their health as well. For him and McConnell, the mental stress of the Pandemic and contracting COVID-19, itself much worse. McConnell reiterated that the mental aspect of getting COVID-19 was worse than the physical and that “you don’t breathe a sigh of relief, but rather you feel like a walking time bomb, never knowing who will be next” when being infected.
Vaccine equals Normalcy
As far as getting the vaccine goes, McConnell feels that “everybody has to make their own judgment call on it. For me, it was no question.” Yet even while saying this, McConnell’s emotions seemed to scream that she hopes everyone just gets it so that this can be over. After all, “living in this COVID-19 world is not fun.”
McConnell used to be an avid traveler, taking one to two international trips a year on top of visiting her kids out of state and hopes to get back to it all soon. In this, McConnell is not alone as the fight for normalcy post-COVID-19 continues.