'My illness has worked out for good': Covid-19 anti-vaxxer becomes jab activist after spending six weeks in ICU

A severe Covid-19 infection left anti-vaxxer Vanessa Joubert on a ventilator in ICU for 42 days, and led to her and her husband becoming vaccine advocates.

10 September 2021 - 07:00
By Sipokazi Fokazi
Covid-19 survivor Vanessa Joubert of Lansdowne in Cape Town and her husband Mark have converted from being anti-vaxxers to vaccine advocates after she spent more than 40 days in ICU, battling infection.
Image: Supplied Covid-19 survivor Vanessa Joubert of Lansdowne in Cape Town and her husband Mark have converted from being anti-vaxxers to vaccine advocates after she spent more than 40 days in ICU, battling infection.

A little more than two months ago, Mark Joubert and his wife Vanessa, of Lansdowne in Cape Town, were Covid-19 anti-vaxxers.

But after the couple contracted the coronavirus early in July - which resulted in Vanessa spending 52 days at Groote Schuur Hospital, of which 42 were on a ventilator in the intensive care unit (ICU) - they’ve had a change of heart. Now, they are fervent vaccine advocates.

“When I woke up from coma my doctor’s exact words were, ‘Vanessa you’ve been to hell and back, and we didn’t expect you to make it.’ After he said those words I realised how sick I’d been. Apparently even before I got put in a ventilator I was so sick that I didn’t know my own husband,” said Vanessa, who turned 46 this week.

She celebrated her special day with her husband, and now says she cannot wait to be vaccinated as soon as she is eligible for the Covid-19 jab.

“My husband is fully vaccinated, and all my family members and colleagues, including those who were against the vaccine, are all vaccinated after they heard that I’m very sick in hospital. So my illness has worked out for good in a way. I’m urging everyone to vaccinate because having Covid-19 is no child’s play.

“Being in ICU is not easy, especially being on the ventilator all this time. I have lost so much weight and I still feel so tired, and my muscles feel so weak. It’s traumatic now being awake in ICU and having the memories of everything that I have gone through. One of the memories was when I thought I’m not going to make it, my body was just so weak,” she said.

Mark says that even though he had mild Covid-19 symptoms, the thought of possibly losing his wife was worse and changed his initial stance on vaccination.

“There were times that I had shortness of breath, not because of Covid-19 but due to the anxiety that I was going through. When I asked the doctors whether Venessa was going to get better, the response was '50/50'. Those words were very scary and I had panic attacks all the time,” he said.

The couple admits that ignorance made them anti-vaxxers.

“There was a lot of information doing rounds. It was all negative information and we weren’t interested in vaccination. As a travel agent I was mostly working from home and didn’t go out much. I guess I had a false sense of safety and we decided that we were not going to vaccinate,” said Vanessa.

Mark added: “Vaccination didn’t interest me. I didn’t know of anyone close to me who had been ill from Covid-19. I think ignorance influenced us a lot, but we’ve had a change of plan after Vanessa got so ill.”

Meanwhile, a group of frontline clinicians from Tygerberg Hospital and Stellenbosch University have made an impassioned plea to the public to vaccinate to avoid a fourth wave.

“In the first wave you applauded us. In the second wave you sympathised with us. In the third wave you ignored us. In the fourth wave, we gave up,” they said in a document that had been signed by more than 70 clinicians, mostly senior managers and head of departments.

In their plea, titled “no-one is safe, unless everyone is safe”, the medics, who called for all South African and healthcare workers to vaccinate, said they were now exhausted after fighting at least three waves of Covid-19.

“We’ve fought a disease half the world doesn’t believe in. We’ve fought the despair of watching you slowly die, powerless to intervene. We’ve fought the waves of disinformation, the ignorance, and the arrogance. We’ve fought for you. We’ve fought for our families. We’ve fought for us. We don’t have much fight left in us. We are exhausted and we need your help. Get vaccinated. Prevent the fourth wave,” they  said.

Stressing the need to urgently reduce the burden on hospitals, Dr Paul Ciapparelli, director of clinical services at Tygerberg Hospital, points to the proven effectiveness of Covid-19 vaccines in preventing severe disease, hospitalisation, and therefore the need for ICU-level care.

“Vaccination will help to reduce the Covid-19 load and enables us to provide more care to our entire patient constituency. I urge all our staff at Tygerberg, as well as the public, to please get vaccinated without delay — it’s by far our best weapon against the pandemic.”

Stellenbosch University dean of the medicine and health sciences faculty, Prof Jimmy Volmink, said: “We urgently call upon all South Africans to wholeheartedly embrace all evidence-based measures that will decrease transmission of the Covid-19 virus, and reduce the risk of serious disease, hospitalisation and death. Covid-19 vaccination offers us the best hope of overcoming the current threat to our lives and livelihoods. Please do the responsible thing and get the shot!” 

Prof Soraya Seedat, executive head of psychiatry, urges colleagues and students in the healthcare community to join forces for vaccine solidarity.

“Together we are stronger catalysts to increase vaccination momentum and ‘normalise’ vaccination in our work spaces and beyond. As a health sciences faculty we should be at the forefront of increasing vaccination rates on campus, among staff and patients at the hospitals and clinics that we serve, and in our wider community.”

Prof Wolfgang Preiser, who heads the division of medical virology, dispelled fears about the safety and efficacy of Covid-19 vaccines.

“People are sceptical about the speed at which the Covid-19 vaccine was developed, but in truth it was based on decades of rigorous scientific research into vaccine development efforts for other diseases. Since its development, hundreds of millions of Covid-19 vaccine doses have been administered globally, revealing an excellent safety profile and very good protective effect against severe and possibly fatal disease,” he said.

He said personally he knows dozens of people who had severe Covid-19 and at least 20 who died from it — “and hundreds who had the vaccine with nothing more than perhaps a day or two of feeling a bit off”.

“Do it for yourself first and foremost, but also for your family, friends, colleagues and others. You probably deplore the effects of the pandemic on the economy, on school-age children and much more (as you should). The key to society going back to (almost) normal is in your own hands: You and everyone else must get the vaccine. No more excuses — go for it, and go now.”