Yukon woman facing long rehab after coma urges everyone to get COVID-19 vaccine

A Yukon woman who spent weeks fighting for her life against COVID-19 is urging others to do what she did not: get vaccinated.

If she knew then what she knows now, Lisa Anderson would have been vaccinated, despite her misgivings

Lisa Anderson of Dawson City, Yukon, is still recovering from COVID-19 in hospital in Vancouver. After her harrowing experience, she's willing to get the vaccine. (Submitted by Lisa Anderson)

A Yukon woman who spent weeks fighting for her life against COVID-19 is encouraging others to do what she did not: get vaccinated.

Lisa Anderson, 40, spent weeks in a coma and regained consciousness just a couple of weeks ago. She's still recovering in hospital in Vancouver and expects it will be months yet before she can return home.

"When my body is well enough, I'm going to move over to the rehabilitation centre next door and have intense physical therapy to try to get my legs working again," she said on Tuesday.

"That is going to be a long time."

Anderson's battle began early last month when she had just moved to Dawson City, Yukon, from Whitehorse to start a new job with the Tr'ondëk Hwëch'in First Nation. She started feeling sick, like she had pneumonia. She said it felt as though her lungs were filling with fluid, and she was tired and moving very slowly.

She went to a doctor and was told it was pneumonia. Anderson was given antibiotics and a COVID-19 test, "just in case," she said. At the time, Yukon had no active cases of COVID-19 and had seen fewer than 100 since the start of the pandemic. Some public health restrictions had just been eased.

The antibiotics didn't help, and Anderson was getting worse. She decided to go back to the hospital, but it took her 40 minutes just to get out the door because she was moving so slowly.

Anderson was admitted to hospital and also given a COVID-19 rapid test. It came back positive.

"I was completely shocked. I was like, how could it be positive? I haven't travelled. There's no known cases [in Yukon]," she recalled.

Anderson was flown to hospital in Whitehorse after testing positive for COVID-19, but was soon sent to Vancouver for care. (CBC)

Health officials soon decided to fly Anderson to Vancouver for care. She had just a few minutes to say goodbye to her three teenage kids via FaceTime before she was intubated.

In Vancouver, she spent five weeks in a medically induced coma.

"I actually died a couple of times. I was on life support where I required 100 per cent oxygen. I was not breathing on my own," she said.

"The very last chance I had was to have a tracheostomy. And the doctor said if that didn't work, then that was it. However, my body did respond to it, and I did start being able to breathe on my own." 

'I felt it wasn't fully researched enough'

Meanwhile, more cases were popping up across Yukon after just a slow trickle of infections over the previous year. Local officials declared it the territory's first major wave and traced it to parties and other gatherings. It was mostly hitting those who were not vaccinated, they said.

That included Anderson. She had earlier decided that she didn't want the shots.

"I felt that it wasn't fully researched enough, like it didn't have enough time to see the total outcome and effects of it. And I know that there's a lot of people that had very adverse side effects, including deaths from the vaccine," she said.

The federal government tracks adverse events after the administration of vaccine. Of 10,167 individual reports (0.023 per cent of all doses administered) tracked up to July 16, 2,441 were considered serious (0.005 per cent of all doses administered).

Only six deaths have been directly related to vaccines — all six are related to blood clotting and followed doses of Oxford-AstraZeneca which is not available in the North.

After her own harrowing experience with the virus, Anderson looks at things differently now.

Anderson, shown with a daughter, had only a few minutes to say goodbye to her three teenage kids via FaceTime before she was intubated. (Submitted by Lisa Anderson)

"If I knew then what I know now, I definitely would have taken my chances with the vaccine than having to go through this," Anderson said on Tuesday.

'Clusters of cases'

Yukon is still dealing with a wave of COVID-19 infections that began last month. Since June 1, the territory has seen 519 cases, including out-of-territory residents and probable cases. Four people in Yukon have died with COVID-19 in that time, and as of Tuesday there were still 89 active cases in the territory.

Territorial health officials also reported new "clusters of cases" in Watson Lake this week and were expecting more in that community.

"All but one of these individuals were unvaccinated — several of whom were unable because of age. All others could have been protected," Dr. Brendan Hanley, Yukon's chief medical officer of health, said in a statement on Monday.

Yukon's Chief Medical Officer Dr. Brendan Hanley getting his vaccine shot in March. Hanley said recent clusters of cases in Watson Lake, Yukon, involve people who are not vaccinated. (The Canadian Press/Mike Thomas)

As of Monday, about 80 per cent of eligible adult Yukoners and 62 per cent of those 12 to 17 years old were fully vaccinated. Eighty-six per cent of adults and 73 per cent of adolescents had received at least one shot.

Anderson says she now expects to get the vaccine once she's well enough. She's says it's up to people to decide for themselves if they get the shots — but she would now "highly suggest" they do.

"I'm going to have permanent lung damage ... from both the ventilator and from what COVID did to me, and I can possibly be on oxygen for an extended period of time," she said.

"So it's just, it's not worth it. I would encourage them to strongly consider being vaccinated."

With files from Elyn Jones