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'Our biggest regret': Salem wife makes plea to unvaccinated as husband clings to life

Salem — Machines are doing the work that retired state Trooper Mark Gendron's lungs and heart used to do for him, blood flowing visibly through clear tubes in what his wife calls a living nightmare that could have been prevented.

Christina Gendron, Mark's wife of almost three years, said it's been a month of hell since he came down with COVID-19 in early July. Now she sits at his Hartford Hospital bedside while the ventilator emits puffs of air every few seconds and the IV tower creates constant ticking noises as more than a half-dozen medications are dispensed. Sedatives and powerful muscle relaxants keep him still because neither his body nor the delicate web of medical equipment can tolerate movement. A respiratory therapist and a registered nurse are assigned exclusively to him around the clock.

"It's like, how did this happen? And I can tell you how it happened," Christina said. "It was a combination of bad luck and the poor decision not to vaccinate sooner."

They had been waiting: for more research, for full FDA approval, for something to assuage their fears about a vaccine they believed had exacerbated Mark's mother's dementia and gave her shingles.

Still, Christina said she and Mark had been planning to get the shot in preparation for what they thought would be a fall wave of the virus. What they didn't know at the time was that the next wave had already come to Salem.

"The week before I tested positive, there were eight people that tested positive in our tiny little town," she said. Salem has a population of about 4,200.

Mark, 52, was on a daily preventative medication for adult-onset asthma, which he liked to joke was his 50th birthday gift to himself. But the condition was under control and he was strong and healthy, his wife said. He was working as a school resource officer at EO Smith High School in Mansfield after retiring from the Connecticut State Police in 2019. Prior to his 21 years as a trooper, he spent six years as a police officer in Colchester.

In calling for others not to make the same mistake they did, she emphasized that coronavirus can strike people down even if they're healthy, even if they have no major underlying conditions and even if age is still in their favor.

"Our biggest regret doesn't need to be somebody else's," she said.  

The tightrope walk

The Gendrons don't know who in the household acted as "patient zero" by bringing the virus home, according to Christina. She said three out of the four children in their blended family tested positive for the virus despite showing no symptoms of COVID-19. It's unclear if the fourth, who was ill the previous month, may have actually had the virus despite negative tests throughout. Christina herself started to feel flu-like symptoms on July 10, a Saturday, and Mark began to feel the first tightness in his chest on Monday.

Nebulizer treatments got him through the first couple of days until worsening shortness of breath prompted a visit to the Backus Hospital emergency room on Wednesday, she said. She drove him there despite her own 104 degree temperature and dropped him at the entrance. After his bloodwork came back clear, doctors sent him home with medications and vitamins to fight the virus. But his condition continued to deteriorate until he was coughing to the point of vomiting and could not get from one room to another without gasping for breath.

When she brought him back to the hospital early Friday morning, he could not walk himself into the emergency room, Christina said. So she watched the nurses put him into a wheelchair and then, because there were no visitors allowed for COVID patients, she had to leave.

"I cried so hard driving away," she said. "I kept thinking this could be the last time that I see him. I was absolutely terrified."

Over the next several days, after he had been put on the antiviral drug Remdesivir and higher and higher levels of oxygen, scans of his lungs went from mostly clear to "probably three-fourths filled with COVID nastiness," she said.

The same day he was moved to the intensive care unit, Christina was cleared to come out of quarantine. She said she convinced the staff at Backus to allow her in despite the prohibition on visitors, citing her own natural immunity and promising to wear whatever personal protective equipment was necessary.

"I just need to be with him,'" she said.

Over the next few days, Mark didn't get worse and didn't get better, according to his wife. She made proactive arrangements to transfer him to Hartford Hospital, where she said there were more options for next level therapy beyond ventilation. Though he hadn't been put on a ventilator at that time, she said all indicators were that he soon would be.

His last good day was a Saturday, which Christina said she jokingly called "date night" as she took the photo of the two of them — Mark smiling beneath a nasal cannula and Christina peeking out from a mask and face shield — that now serves as the profile picture for the Facebook account where she updates friends and family about Mark's condition.

But the levity did not last long.

Sunday was bad, she said. By Monday, he was put on a ventilator and transported to Hartford Hospital in an ambulance after the Life Star helicopter was grounded due to the effects of the western wildfires. Upon his arrival in Hartford, he was put on an extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, or ECMO, machine to take over breathing functions so his lungs could heal.

"Sometimes the ventilator isn't enough," she said. "So they pump out the blood from your body, they oxygenate it, they take out the carbon dioxide and then it pumps back into your body."

Without ECMO, she said Mark would have certainly died. But every day since then has presented a new challenge. There's been internal bleeding, procedures like tracheostomies and bronchoscopies, and oxygen and blood pressure issues. Coagulants administered to treat the internal bleeding caused problems with clots that can adversely affect the ECMO treatment.

"They call it the tightrope walk," she said. "Trying to balance everything and weighing out the risks versus the benefits."

Earlier this week, there was a night she thought he wasn't going to make it through. On Thursday, he flatlined in front of her and had to be resuscitated.

Christina said she doesn't like to be away from Mark for too long because of the strange, irrational panic that makes her question how her every move will affect her husband: "If he opens his eyes and he sees me not there, what if he just lets go?"

She acknowledged the odds are not in Mark's favor. If he survives, he may need a double lung transplant. In the best case scenario, he'll have to remain on ECMO for at least four more weeks before starting an extensive rehabilitation process.

The uncertainty weighs heavy on the children in the family, even as they try to be strong, she said. She recalled the recent birthday of Mark's son and namesake, who turned 14 with only one wish: to talk to his dad. And though Mark could not move or speak, Christina said she timed the phone call to occur when the last dose of sedation medication had mostly worn off and brain waves indicated the highest levels of mental activity. Then she put the call on speakerphone so Mark Jr. could talk to his dad.

"I had to let Junior know that his dad could probably hear him but wouldn't be able to respond," she said. "Junior was so strong but his voice cracked at one point and I could almost hear him swallow his pain and then keep talking."

'Our biggest regret'

The likelihood that none of this would have happened if they'd gotten vaccinated was a reality starkly reinforced for Christina right before he was put on the ventilator and consciousness was taken away. That's when Mark, who had tears in his eyes, looked at her and said, "Why didn't we vaccinate?"

"I had nothing to say to him," she recalled.

That's why she's talking now.

"I just don't think anyone has any idea this could be them," she said.

During a virtual news conference this week, Dr. Ajay Kumar, Hartford HealthCare's chief clinical officer, said vaccine hesitancy continues to be a significant issue and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration could perhaps help overcome it by granting full approval of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. Some of the hesitant have cited the FDA's Emergency Use Authorization of the vaccines as a reason to delay being vaccinated.

"Information about the vaccine is all over the place to a certain extent," Kumar said. "I am concerned that some of our community members are seeking information from sources which are not credible, which are based on myths or confusing arguments."

Kumar reported Monday that Hartford HealthCare's seven hospitals were treating 61 COVID-19 patients.

Christina knows of at least 10 people who got vaccinated since she began sharing information about Mark's plight. Men in particular have reached out to say that they did it not for themselves, but to spare their wives and children.

She said saving other families from living the same nightmare means that even if the worst case scenario happens to Mark, something positive will have come out of it.

"And I don't want to think like that," she said, crying. "We try to stay positive. But it gives me some sense of power over this situation to at least get a message out. To say it could be you, too."

For the Gendrons, it's about experience over ideology.

"This isn't a political thing. This isn't vax versus anti-vax," she said. "This is real. And this is our biggest regret."

e.regan@theday.com

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