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‘As soon as I get out of here, I want to get the vaccine’

STORY BY MICHELLE GENZ (Week of August 12, 2021)
Photo: Elizabeth Pantano and Dr. Kim Yerich

Three weeks and three days before the death of Dr. Kim Yerich, his beloved cousin, Elizabeth Pantano, made another of her routine pilgrimages from Vero Beach to South Carolina to see him.

Going to the family farm near Charleston was like going home, Pantano says. She and her cousin grew up together there.

Beth, as she is known, was happy to see Kim was his usual boisterous self. They sat on the porch and ate ribs and peach ice cream, and toured his Christmas tree farm. Kim showed her the addition he was building to the horse barn.

“He was always a dreamer,” recalled Pantano last Sunday, one day after her cousin died of COVID-19.

Seemingly overnight, Kim’s dreams had ended in a nightmare, a horror Pantano knows might have been prevented had her cousin agreed to be  vaccinated.

“I am heartbroken and angry,” said Pantano, who has had a long career in healthcare. “If his suffering and death can save one person, it would lighten my heart a bit.”

Kim, a retired veterinarian who spent his career vaccinating everybody’s pets, was not vaccinated against COVID-19. Neither was his wife, son, daughter, or son-in-law. They all got COVID too.

Only his youngest daughter Grayson, 21, didn’t get the virus. She was the only member of the family vaccinated.

Knowing her father opposed vaccines, she never told him until her first visit to the hospital, when he was already on a Bi-PAP machine to help him breathe.

“Dad started to cry and said, ‘As soon as I get out of here, I want to get the vaccine.’ He gave me a thumbs up and said, ‘I am so proud of you.’”

“Dad was completely against the COVID vaccine prior to having COVID-19,” said Grayson, who hopes to go to medical school when she graduates from Clemson.

“He was concerned about not knowing the long-term side effects, especially with all the misinformation around the vaccine.

“While I went completely against my father’s beliefs and questioned him, I saved my life in the long run,” said Grayson, a Type One diabetic who is at higher risk for severe COVID disease. In childhood, Grayson spent many days in the pediatric ICU.

“I grew up going in and out of the PICU, and I have never seen a disease as horrible as COVID-19,” Grayson said.

“I lost my father to a disease that has been politicized when it should have been prioritized. No one should have to watch a loved one suffer like this.

“Everyone in my family had COVID except me. To me, that proved the vaccine worked,” she said. “I just wish Dad had gotten the vaccine.”

During the worst of her father’s illness, an overwhelmed Grayson would call Pantano – her cousin – in Vero, sometimes two or three times a day. Their conversations were devastatingly sad, said Pantano.

“It was the tragedy of it all. I would try to support her but there were no words. I would just tell her I loved her, and we prayed.”

For these past weeks, Pantano’s rosary, stationed at her bedside, has been a fixture in her fingers. As her cousin’s life spun out and away, her anger began to swell.

She knows the vaccine could well have saved her cousin’s life.

In her medically trained mind, the political views of her family members should not have entered into their decision to get protection from the virus. 

“When did it get political? Why is it political? Trump is the one who implemented Operation Warp Speed because we needed it out fast. A vaccine was the only answer,” she said.

But trying to tell people they are wrong about the vaccine is risky business. “If you do, you may cause a divide in your own family. Fighting and arguing about it is never the answer,” Pantano said.

She did talk to her nephew and his wife – they were afraid of getting sick from the vaccine, and of long-lasting adverse effects that social media sources warned of.

“I said to them we eradicated wild smallpox with a vaccine. We all had the polio vaccine and that’s why it’s almost eradicated. The older population remembers polio and I think they get vaccinated because they’ve lived through a vaccine-preventable illness,” said Pantano.

“We’re vaccinated against measles, mumps, rubella, diphtheria, hepatitis A, hepatitis B. We give our babies hepatitis B vaccine while they’re still in the hospital. Why are we afraid of this vaccine?”

Her nephew and his wife ended up getting the vaccine. They also convinced a friend to get it. Then they spoke to their minister, who urged his congregation to get vaccinated. Kim’s impact on those around him may be his final legacy.

“I don’t think it’s anything I said,” said Pantano. “I think my nephew and his wife saw [Kim’s suffering] and they realized they needed the vaccine.

“People are in denial,” she went on. “There’s been so much media, people talking about faking numbers and all this arguing and drama about it. Until it affects somebody you know and love, you really don’t know the suffering.”

Pantano points out researchers have been studying the foundation of the two most common COVID vaccines, messenger RNA, since the 1970s, and working on synthetic mRNA vaccines since the 1990s.

The tweak that ultimately made the COVID-19 vaccine possible was discovered in 2005, “the starter pistol for the vaccine sprint to come,” as the medical magazine STAT put it.

That was 16 years ago.

Grayson doesn’t hold back about the loss of her father.

“I have big plans. And I no longer have my No. 1 cheerleader in my corner,” she said. “My father will never see me graduate from Clemson. He will never see me graduate from medical school. He will never be able to walk me down the aisle at my wedding.

“I want him to be proud of me. This semester, I’m taking my dad’s favorite class, organic chemistry.”

It was Grayson who called Pantano in Vero before dawn last Saturday morning to tell her about Kim’s death.

The news hit Pantano hard because Kim had been a kind of father to her as well.

They went to the same school and Kim, who was in high school, got a special pass to leave early and run across the road to pick up Beth every time it started to snow from preschool.

He taught her songs to sing while he played the guitar, and they recorded the music into his cassette player, convinced they’d be a rock band one day.

When he took astronomy in college, they stretched out on a blanket in the field while he pointed out constellations.

She visited him in veterinary school at the University of Georgia, and when he opened his office, she went to work for him. He took her to her first concert – Chicago – and bought her first legal drink when she turned 21.

Pantano left home after college, bought herself a sailboat and for five years lived in a marina in Delray Beach. She met her husband and moved to Big Pine Key before settling in Vero to raise their two kids.

Now and then, Kim flew down to Vero in his own plane – Grayson sometimes flew with him, and after a couple of days of going to the beach and out to eat, they would typically head to the Keys.

As for Pantano, she has always returned to the farm several times a year, more when her parents were still alive. She and her brother kept ownership of her parents’ house there when they died, both in their 90s.

“Our people are long-lived people,” Pantano said.

Her cousin Kim was a tall, healthy, outgoing, animal-loving soul about to turn 66 before he was felled by COVID. He missed his birthday, Aug. 23, and his 36th wedding anniversary the next day, and his daughter Grayson’s birthday four days after that.

It was a trifecta of annual milestones that typically merged into a weeklong celebration. This year, the family will mark the third week of mourning.

Kim started feeling bad just five days after Pantano last saw him. Shortly after, he was hospitalized; by July 30, he was on a BiPAP machine, using what little breath he had to repeatedly tell his family he couldn’t breathe and was in agony.

Grayson posted to Facebook: “The sheer amount of agony my father is in from this virus is terrifying, Please get vaccinated, wear your masks and stay six feet apart. I cannot stress enough how desperate we are to prevent anyone else from getting COVID-19. This is an absolute nightmare.”

“My family cannot unsee everything that my father went through,” said Grayson. “My dad was screaming using every last breath he had to tell us he couldn’t breathe. It was horrible.”

Finally, doctors felt they had no choice but to put him on a ventilator, now used only as a last resort in COVID-19 treatment. He died within 36 hours.

For nearly three weeks, Kim’s family – his wife, their three children and their spouses – diligently maintained shifts at his bedside for the 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. visiting hours, outfitted with N-95 masks. Overnight, though, he was alone. The end came at 4 a.m.

“I only hope a nurse held his hand,”  Pantano said.