What an unvaccinated sergeant who almost died of Covid-19 wants you to know

CAMDEN, NJ – No one thought Frank Talarico Jr. should live. Not his doctors, his nurses, or his wife, a medical assistant working part-time at Camden, NJ Hospital, where he spent 49 days struggling to survive Covid-19.

A 47-year-old police officer, he was not vaccinated against coronavirus. Without being convinced of the benefits of the vaccine, he reckoned that he was young and fit enough to handle any disease that the virus might cause.

He was wrong.

“If it’s an eye opener for anyone – then it must be,” Sergeant Talarico said recently at his home in Pennsauken, NJ, about five miles northeast of Camden. He plans to get the vaccine as soon as the doctors he credits to save his life at Virtua Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital give him the final medical approval.

“If I had been vaccinated,” he said, “I must think I would not have become as ill as I became.”

Although police work by its very nature entails the possibility of violent or fatal encounters, Covid-19 has for the past two years been the leading cause of death for law enforcement agencies in the United States.

When Covid vaccines were first offered in December 2020, law enforcement officers – frontline workers who, like doctors and nurses, are required to interact closely with people in crisis – were given priority to shots that have since been shown to significantly reduce the risk of serious illness. and death.

But over the next year, as some police unions tried to block vaccine mandates, at least 301 police, sheriff and detectives died from complications from Covid-19, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial, a nonprofit organization that tracks line-of-duty deaths . Since January, Covid has continued to surpass other major causes of death during service.

“It’s not just a little bit about those killed with firearms and traffic fatalities,” said Troy Anderson, a retired Connecticut police sergeant who is now director of security and welfare for the memorial. “It’s with head and shoulders over.”

“It’s inconceivable that we’re still in this place,” he added.

Sergeant Talarico’s ordeal began on Christmas Eve when Omicron infections skyrocketed across the country, flooding hospitals and stretching staff levels almost past breaking points.

Before it was over, the patrol officer, who was less than a year from retirement after 24 years on the job, was hospitalized twice.

After being rushed to the hospital a second time, he had a foot-long blood clot removed from his lung, a procedure that prevented a certain death but made his heart almost stop beating. He was put on advanced life support while still lying on the operating table. For two days, a machine performed the work on his heart and lungs.

It did not take long before his kidneys began to fail and required dialysis.

One of the many hard moments was the day his daughter, a 19-year-old freshman, visited him for what they both feared might be a final goodbye. Sergeant Talarico was conscious but connected to a ventilator and was unable to speak.

“He would try to speak words around the breathing tube,” said Jackie Whitby, a cardiac nurse who was also in the room. “He had tears in her eyes. She had tears in her eyes.”

Retelling the story more than two months later, Sergeant Talarico began to cry again.

About half of the 14 officers in his Merchantville, NJ police department have been vaccinated, he said. The department chief of police did not respond.

Sergeant Talarico said he had tried to persuade reluctant colleagues to be vaccinated.

“I say, ‘Just look at me and see what I went through,'” he said.

Many of the nation’s largest police departments, including Los Angeles, New York and Newark, have demanded that employees be vaccinated. Criminal officers in New Jersey have also been ordered to get shot or risk being fired.

In Newark, New Jersey’s largest city, nine police officers have died of Covid-19. But there have been no Covid deaths since the city’s vaccination mandate was implemented in September following a failed legal challenge by police and fire brigades.

About 96 percent of Newark’s public safety officers have now received at least two shots of either the Moderna or Pfizer BioNTech vaccine or a shot of Johnson & Johnsons, said Brian O’Hara, Newark’s director of public safety.

The last member of the Newark Department of Public Safety who died of Covid was Richard T. McKnight, a 20-year-old employee who treated prisoners. He was not vaccinated, said Mr O’Hara, who spoke at the funeral.

Days after Mr. McKnight’s death in August, his wife, who was ill with Covid, also died, said Mr. O’Hara.

“Their 9-year-old daughter is left without parents,” he said.

A hospital with 340 beds, Virtua Our Lady of Lourdes, treated 26 patients for Covid on the day Sergeant Talarico was first admitted. Within two weeks, 81 patients were admitted with the virus.

“January was the worst month of my career,” said Dr. Vivek Sailam, a cardiologist who has worked for Our Lady of Lourdes for 14 years.

As Sergeant Talarico slowly began to recover, against all odds, staff members began to gather around him, referring to him as their “miracle patient.”

“‘You’re getting better, I’ll take you to dinner,” said Dr. Sailam to Sergeant Talarico as he came out of a fan for the second time.

A nurse, Shawn McCullough, devised a system using a message board that allowed Sergeant Talarico to communicate while he was intubated. A physiotherapist, Wendy Hardesty, insisted he was strong enough to climb the three steps into his home before being discharged for the second time on February 18th.

“The mental trauma that has been on these nurses and what they have witnessed – the amount of death and pain. That’s what everyone needed,” said Dr. Sailam. “Everyone needed this victory. . “

After being hospitalized with pneumonia for three weeks at Christmas time, Sergeant Talarico was discharged but was so weak that his wife, Christine Lynch, put up folding chairs throughout their house – “so he could get away from a chair in the living room and rest before going to the toilet. ”

At 5 a.m. one morning as he was struggling to breathe, she called the ambulance again.

He was readmitted with the foot-long blood clot in his lungs. Known as a pulmonary embolism, it has become a common side effect of Covid-19 in inpatients.

The device that was used to remove it has only been available since 2018, Dr. Joseph Broudy, who said the new technology allowed him to extract the emboli largely intact.

If that had not been possible, Dr. Broudy, “he probably would not have survived.”

Sergeant Talarico and Mrs. Lynch, his second wife, had been married for less than a year when, in late December, he was told he had been exposed to the virus by a colleague. Soon the newlyweds both became ill.

Ms. Lynch, a medical assistant who had been vaccinated, said she initially shared her husband’s reluctance to take the shot. Sergeant Talarico said he thought the vaccine approval had been rushed and he questioned its safety.

Looking back, he said he wished Mrs. Lynch, 33, had “kicked him in the butt” for being vaccinated. Had he been older with other health risk factors than high blood pressure, she said she would have.

Before he fell ill, Sergeant Talarico said he trained regularly and for three years had participated in the Police Unity Tour, a three-day bike ride to Washington held every May to honor fallen officers as their names are added to a memorial in the capital . .

“I’ve been healthy all my life,” he said. “I guess I just had the mentality that if I get it, I’ll be one of those people who’s mild. And that was certainly not the case.”

Tom Buckley, a senior vice president at the hospital, estimated that the billable cost of treating a patient as ill as Sergeant Talarico would be around $ 400,000 to $ 500,000; Sergeant Talarico said he had not received the final bill from his insurance company for the cost of his care.

About three weeks after being discharged from the hospital forever, Sergeant Talarico returned with bagels, pizza and a promise to the staff who fought to keep him alive. “He told us he wanted to be vaccinated,” said Correinne Newman, a nurse.

This gesture brought Ms. Whitby, who was free but was contacted through FaceTime, to tears.

“He’s a cop and I’m a nurse – we basically put our lives on the line and put other people first,” she said.

“Getting him to say, ‘You know what? I’m going to get the vaccine as soon as I possibly can.’

“I feel like he’s supporting us.”

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