Lanny Thomas, a former mayor of Trion, Georgia, received the phone call every parent fears: The one from his child in trouble.
It was near midnight on Aug. 18, and Thomas's 27-year-old son, Christian, was on the line saying: "Daddy, I've had a wreck and I'm hurting."
That was scary enough. But then, said Thomas, he heard his son say to a state patrol officer who had just arrived: "'Can you get me out of here?' And I'm like, oh my gosh, do they have to bring out the Jaws of Life?"
But neither of the Thomases knew the call was just the beginning of their trauma involving a rainy Chattooga County North Georgia night, a skidding and airborne car, a fractured spinal lumbar, a four-hour surgery, nearly a week in the hospital, a painful recovery and COVID-19.
That last bit of trauma — COVID-19 — shouldn't have been a part of this saga, but it became a big factor.
The Thomases and Christian had to endure all of this pain and fear alone — the son hurting in a hospital room alone, and the parents and siblings in their homes, waiting and desperate to be with him.
Why? Because COVID-19 and its delta variant has so ravaged our region and our hospitals that even though all the Thomases were vaccinated, they were not allowed to be together because of Erlanger's COVID guidelines in the face of rising cases, some among even those who've already had the virus or been vaccinated.
When Thomas got the call we all dread, he and his wife were on St. Simons Island off the southeastern coast of Georgia. The distraught father called his brother to meet Christian at Erlanger. But when the young man's uncle got there, he wasn't allowed in to be with Christian. In fact, he wasn't even allowed to sit in the waiting room. He was told he would have to leave the building due to COVID.
The same applied to the parents when they arrived the next day. They had to wait at home during the surgery for updates from kind nurses and attendants. The surgeon also called them and answered all their questions.
On Aug. 20, the very angry dad posted on Facebook:
"This post is not up for debate. I am about to rant. As most of you know, my son has had a horrible car accident. He has had a major four-hour surgery on his lower back. He is currently in an ICU bed. I cannot go see my son! This hospital is not allowing any visitors period. He is alone and has not seen any friends or family. Why? BECAUSE PEOPLE WHO HAVE FREELY CHOSEN NOT TO GET VACCINATED FOR COVID HAVE COVID AND ARE TAKING UP THE ICU BEDS!"
Thomas acknowledged that at first, he was mad at the hospital. But then he moved his anger to the people of our region who have stubbornly and selfishly chosen not to be vaccinated against a virus so dangerous that the hospitals have to react as they have to protect patients like Christian, as well as their medical staff.
Quoting a national medical statistic recently aired on National Public Radio, Thomas continued his rant, noting that 97% of people hospitalized from COVID now are unvaccinated.
"I'm upset [at] the 97% of the people who might not be taking up so many beds if they had simply [taken] the vaccine ... Now my rant is over. You come back at me with some crap, you will be deleted from my [Facebook] account."
Plenty of people — too many, both sick and unsick — are seeing the high price of waiting too long to vaccinate.
Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp last week ordered more than 100 National Guard personnel be deployed to 20 hospitals across the state to help with Georgia's COVID surge. Tennessee made a similar announcement the week before.
Christian, now slowly getting back to normal at home, saw the wear on his nurses and attendants, and he feels sure the care in hospitals today is not what it was before the pandemic.
"You can definitely notice they're short-staffed and there's not enough rooms. There were times when I felt so horrible asking people to do stuff for me. And they would apologize and say 'I'm sorry, we're so short-staffed and there's a lot of people here.'"
Nashville conservative talk radio host Phil Valentine had been a vaccine skeptic until he was hospitalized from COVID-19 at age 61. After he tested positive, he told his listeners to consider getting vaccinated. He later died, and his brother, Mark, said Phil told him he regretted that "he wasn't a more vocal advocate of the vaccination."
Thomas says people who say they are exercising their "freedom" to make a choice not to vaccinate don't understand the ripple effects of their decision — not just for themselves, but for everyone else, too.
"I was a victim of that, and my wife and my family — not being able to be with my son," he said. "Here's the thing. It wasn't my intent to politicize it ... though it is now a political tool that people use. But here I am, I'm a Republican. I'm a conservative. But my family's taken the vaccinations and I encourage people — please take that vaccination. Protect yourselves and protect hospitals."
And don't put more families like his — or yours — in the untenable position of having to leave a loved one alone through the worst traumas of their lives.
Put the politics and selfishness and unfounded fear aside. Get vaccinated.