Calgary

Alberta woman pleads with others to get COVID-19 vaccine after nearly dying

Janine Fisher was two weeks shy of becoming eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine when she tested positive. When a ventilator wasn't enough, doctors placed her on the most extreme form of life support, a treatment reserved for people facing certain death.

Janine Fisher was placed on the most extreme form of life support, reserved for patients facing certain death

Janine Fisher, 51, spent a month in hospital, including several weeks in intensive care, after testing positive for the B117 coronavirus variant. She wants Albertans to know COVID-19 is no joke. (Janine Fisher)

Just a few weeks ago, Janine Fisher was on the brink of death.

The healthy, active 51-year-old Sherwood Park mother had been diligently following public health guidelines and was just two weeks shy of becoming eligible for her coronavirus vaccine when she suddenly fell ill with the variant first discovered in the U.K.

Doctors battled to save Fisher — placing her on a ventilator and then moving her to ECMO (extracorporeal membrane oxygenation), the most extreme form of life support available — and while she survived, she's not sure if she'll ever fully recover.

"There was no reason for me to get very sick — no previous conditions — and yet I almost died," said Fisher.

"This variant is insidious. It just seemed that it was unstoppable."

One of her family members caught the B117 variant in late March, and the virus swept through her household.

One by one, each person tested positive despite their attempts to stay apart and follow the rules.

"Everyone was struck down by it," said Fisher.

'I was afraid I was going to die'

Fisher tested positive and immediately checked into an isolation hotel on April 7, the day after developing a sore throat and cough.

Two days later, she was struggling to breathe and was rushed by ambulance to hospital.

With her entire immediate family in isolation, she was alone — and frightened.

"I was afraid that I was going to die," Fisher recalled. "I spent several days feeling like I was … drowning."

Within five days her condition was so critical she was sedated and placed on a ventilator.

A single, hazy memory lingers from that traumatic time.

"My son sat beside me and held my hand and sang to me for hours," she recalled. "And my husband also would come … and sing to me. Even though I wasn't conscious, I do remember."

Janine's husband took this photo of Janine Fisher (and her son, Cohen) when she was hooked up to an ECMO machine, a treatment considered a last line of defence. As a safety precaution, visitors are not allowed to remove their phone from plastic bags in this intensive care unit. (Janine Fisher)

Cohen Fisher, 25, was the first family member out of isolation and allowed to visit.

As she lay, eyes closed and hooked up to a ventilator, he sang the same children's hymns his mother sang to him years earlier.

"My first impression was she looks pretty lifeless … And I was dying for any ounce of response," he said.

But his mother's lungs were so severely infected it became clear she wouldn't survive on a ventilator alone. Doctors decided to try ECMO, the most advanced form of life support.

It gives the lungs a chance to heal by pumping blood through a heart and lung machine, and is considered a last line of defence for patients who will otherwise die.

"That was one of the worst days of my life," said Cohen.

'They saved my life'

Fisher is one of a just a few dozen Albertans with COVID-19 who have been treated with ECMO since the start of the pandemic, and one of fewer yet who have survived.

As her lungs improved, doctors and nurses weaned her off the machine and later off the ventilator. She was released from hospital just in time for Mother's Day.

"They're heroes. They saved my life," she said.

Janine Fisher and her son Cohen pose for a photo after she was moved out of the ICU onto the COVID-19 ward. She says she's grateful to her medical team and to members of her faith community who prayed for her during her ordeal. (Janine Fisher)

Fisher is now recovering at home.

But her battle is far from over. She relies on a  walker to get around, she's extremely short of breath and she needs help with basic tasks.

It's unclear whether she'll ever fully recover and she hopes her story prompts other Albertans to follow public health rules and get vaccinated.

"I would not wish my experience on anyone. It was a traumatic, debilitating, painful experience for me and for all of my family," Fisher said.

"Respect the virus that's still with us. The variant is no joke. It nearly killed me. And it is ferocious."

'It's easy to say it hasn't affected you and it won't affect you … and everyone's over-reacting, until your mom almost dies," said Cohen, pictured here with his mother a week after she was released from hospital. He's urging Albertans to take the virus seriously. (Janine Fisher)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jennifer Lee

Reporter

Jennifer Lee is a CBC News reporter based in Calgary. She worked at CBC Toronto, Saskatoon and Regina, before landing in Calgary in 2002. If you have a health or human interest story to share, let her know. Jennifer.Lee@cbc.ca

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