‘I just can’t go through this again’: Why mom changed her mind on COVID vaccine

Sherry Clements Wilmot, seen here with her son J.T., said that the tipping ponit in overcoming her vaccine hesitancy was when a friend recommended that she write down every person she knew who died of COVID-19 (21 names), and everyone she knew who died of the vaccine. "Crickets. Zip. Zero," she now says. (Courtesy of Sherry Clements Wilmot)

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Sherry Clements Wilmot, seen here with her son J.T., said that the tipping ponit in overcoming her vaccine hesitancy was when a friend recommended that she write down every person she knew who died of COVID-19 (21 names), and everyone she knew who died of the vaccine. "Crickets. Zip. Zero," she now says. (Courtesy of Sherry Clements Wilmot)

Talk with trusted doctor helps teacher overcome vaccine hesitancy

Sherry Clements Wilmot has worked as a teacher in Ocilla, Ga., for 38 years. In an interview with staff writer Tamar Hallerman, she explained how her attitude about the COVID-19 vaccine shifted from hope to fear and how discussions with a trusted doctor, family and friends this summer helped her overcome her hesitancy — all in the nick of time. This interview was edited for length and clarity.

“I always give my faith the credit for me having a child.

For 22 years I was told I couldn’t have children. I went through countless fertility treatments. When I turned 40, the doctors said they wouldn’t take my money anymore. ‘Your miracle lies with an adoption agency,’ one told me.

My husband, Kurt, and I started praying. We had an adoption fall through the Saturday before I passed out in the shower and was rushed to hospital. I was six weeks pregnant, had no idea. I was 42.

When J.T. came along it was a miracle in our book. Our entire county knew about him. That Thanksgiving the local newspaper came to our house and said, ‘Can we please do a story on y’all?’ The story ran on the front page of The Ocilla Star with the headline, ‘Couple thankful for long-awaited child.’ We have a framed picture of it hanging in our hallway.

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The first seizure came a few days before J.T.’s third birthday. He just lay there like a limp dishrag, and about every two minutes his body would stiffen and go back down. It took exactly 18 minutes for the ambulance to get here. It was the longest 18 minutes of my life. Nobody knew what was going on. We didn’t know that it was an epileptic seizure.

J.T. is 18 now, and he just began his senior year of high school. His epilepsy has been under control for a decade now, but I have unashamedly hovered over him his entire life. I tell people that when it’s over my child, I will go from Southern belle to redneck in three seconds flat.

So when somebody said, ‘I can’t believe that you as a school teacher and J.T. having an underlying condition haven’t gotten vaccinated,’ it made me angry.”

***

“When COVID first hit, I kept saying I’d be the first in line for a vaccine.

The pandemic made me so nervous and scared. My elderly mother, who survived breast cancer, was living alone, and I couldn’t go see her. My husband and I are diabetic. We shut down church, were worshipping online. It was just a miserable several months.

In July 2020, my sister, who is a nurse practitioner, caught COVID and really came near dying. Her temperature didn’t break for 16 days. You could just tell she was so weak. We had lost our other two siblings over the years, and I called her and said, ‘You can’t leave me. You are all I have.’

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Sherry Clements Wilmot, center, with her son, J.T., and husband, Kurt, who got the Johnson & Johnson vaccine in the spring. Sherry says, "Kurt felt strongly that I should also get the vaccine, but he didn’t argue with me. He told me ‘I know that you’ve had some trouble with medications in the past, and I know you’re scared,’ but every now and then he would gently say, ‘I think you’ll be fine if you got it.’" (Courtesy of Sherry Clements Wilmot)

Sherry Clements Wilmot, center, with her son, J.T., and husband, Kurt, who got the Johnson & Johnson vaccine in the spring. Sherry says, "Kurt felt strongly that I should also get the vaccine, but he didn’t argue with me. He told me ‘I know that you’ve had some trouble with medications in the past, and I know you’re scared,’ but every now and then he would gently say, ‘I think you’ll be fine if you got it.’" (Courtesy of Sherry Clements Wilmot)

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Sherry Clements Wilmot, center, with her son, J.T., and husband, Kurt, who got the Johnson & Johnson vaccine in the spring. Sherry says, "Kurt felt strongly that I should also get the vaccine, but he didn’t argue with me. He told me ‘I know that you’ve had some trouble with medications in the past, and I know you’re scared,’ but every now and then he would gently say, ‘I think you’ll be fine if you got it.’" (Courtesy of Sherry Clements Wilmot)

Gov. Brian Kemp opened up the vaccine to Georgians with high-risk medical conditions and people 55 and older in mid-March. But by then, I was very determined that neither I nor my son would receive it.

I had read so much information that scared me. Countless social media posts from people I knew and trusted that talked about how they rushed the vaccine, that there was not enough research. I made the mistake of looking at YouTube videos where people claiming to be doctors went on and on about how dangerous it could be, and TikToks from people who call themselves ‘vaccine long-haulers’ discussing how they were still having side effects months later. If you watch enough of those, you start questioning your sanity.

I’ve had allergic reactions to injections in the past. Progesterone gave me welts and raised red streaks from my waist to my toes, and I had bad experiences with (vitamin) B-12. I was so afraid that I would have an anaphylactic reaction to the COVID vaccine, that I would die suddenly. And if I’m afraid for me to take it, I’m certainly afraid for my child to take it.

“I had read so much information that scared me. Countless social media posts from people I knew and trusted that talked about how they rushed the vaccine ... If you watch enough of those, you start questioning your sanity."

Despite that, most all of my family members were urging me regularly that I needed it. My mother-in-law and sister-in-law had been driving me crazy with it for months. It got to the point where one day I looked at them and said, ‘OK, eventually I’m going to get the daggum shot, and if I die from it I’m going to have “I told you so” inscribed on my tombstone.’ That’s how angry I was about it.

In the spring, Kurt got the Johnson & Johnson vaccine at work. In addition to diabetes, he has high blood pressure and high cholesterol, and he felt like it was the smart thing to do. I watched him for like three days waiting for something to happen, and it didn’t bother him at all.

Kurt felt strongly that I should also get the vaccine, but he didn’t argue with me. He told me ‘I know that you’ve had some trouble with medications in the past, and I know you’re scared,’ but every now and then he would gently say, ‘I think you’ll be fine if you got it.’

***

“Things kind of cooled off in early summer. You rarely heard of anybody getting COVID, and I thought that if the numbers kept going down I should be OK without the vaccine. But things started exploding in the weeks after the Fourth of July, and it’s just gotten worse and worse ever since.

All I could think was, ‘I just can’t go through this again. I’ve got to be proactive and find something that I can do that’s going to help protect me and my family.’ Not only that, but after taking last school year off, I was going back into the classroom as a reading interventionist.

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It really hit me when a friend recommended that I write down the names of everybody I know who’s died from COVID-19. Within two minutes I had 21 names of people from tiny little Irwin County and neighboring Ben Hill. She then said to write down the name of everybody I know who died from the vaccine. Crickets. Zip. Zero.

Around then, my husband and sister began expressing more concerns about J.T. and me being unvaccinated. And I saw one of my best friends, who’s had anaphylactic reactions in the past, get the vaccine and do fine. That gave me a little courage.

But first I needed a trusted voice to weigh in. We’ve been working with J.T.’s neurologist in Macon for 15 years and I have so much faith in his expertise. I wanted to sit face-to-face with him.

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Of course he immediately said to get the vaccine. He told us J.T.’s seizures could get reignited if he gets COVID, and he looked at me and said, ‘Do you really want all this to start over?’

That was all I needed to know — that my child will be safer. But I couldn’t let J.T. get it unless I got it first. I mean, I’m the kind of mama that when he was first prescribed amoxicillin I stuck my finger in it to see what the liquid tasted like.

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Sherry Clements Wilmot, right, poses with Jean Moore, from the Irwin County Health Department, on Friday, Aug. 27, 2021, after Clements received her second dose of the Moderna vaccine. (Courtesy of Sherry Clements Wilmot)

Sherry Clements Wilmot, right, poses with Jean Moore, from the Irwin County Health Department, on Friday, Aug. 27, 2021, after Clements received her second dose of the Moderna vaccine. (Courtesy of Sherry Clements Wilmot)

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Sherry Clements Wilmot, right, poses with Jean Moore, from the Irwin County Health Department, on Friday, Aug. 27, 2021, after Clements received her second dose of the Moderna vaccine. (Courtesy of Sherry Clements Wilmot)

I wish you could see the picture. My son’s youth pastor went with me because she knew how scared I was. Here I am, this 60-year-old woman taking a 26-year-old with me to pray over me. She held my hand and everything. I’m so ashamed to say it was perfectly easy. I didn’t even feel the Moderna shot. I got it on Friday. By Sunday afternoon the soreness was gone.

Two weeks later, J.T. went in for his first dose of the Moderna vaccine.

Six days later, Kurt tested positive for COVID. The first question he was asked by his doctor was, ‘Are you vaccinated?’ When he said yes, we were told he’d be fine. And guess what, he has been. He basically felt like he had a bad cold. We all had to quarantine because we were exposed, but J.T. and I both tested negative.

Even though J.T. and I had only received one dose of the shot when Kurt tested positive, I think in the big picture the vaccine did its job. It helped keep us from getting COVID and it helped my husband to not be hospitalized from it. Science took care of me, but my faith says God took care of me first.

***

“My family moved to Ocilla when I was in the fifth grade. Except for four years at college, I’ve been here ever since. It’s like Mayberry from The Andy Griffith Show — the kind of place where everybody knows everybody. I can probably tell you who in our city is Otis.

In general, I’m not one to stir the pot on social media. The very people that might get angry with me I have to go to church with and I have to work with. I teach their children. My husband serves on the Board of Education.

I’m not going to fuss at people who don’t get the vaccine. I’m not going to get in your face and say you’re stupid. I know that when people were combative with me I kind of dug my feet in.

But if I can use kindness to say, ‘Let me tell you my story. I was just like you, I was afraid,’ maybe it will convince somebody else who’s on that fence to go ahead and do it. That’s what compelled me to share my family’s vaccination story.

It took me a long time to get there, but I’m so thankful that I did.”

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