Jill Hall Mandichak
Dana Laukhuf has three medically fragile children ages ages 10, 5, and 4. All three were born with severe heart defects, just like their mom. The 38-year-old Leesburg, Va. woman was diagnosed at birth with Tetralogy of Fallot with Pulmonary Atresia, leading to five open heart surgeries and a dozen cardiac catheters over the course of her life. Doctors at Boston's Children's Hospital and Harvard are studying the Laukhuf family; many women with her heart condition don't have children, Dana says, much less three with heart conditions.
Her youngest also has Down's Syndrome, which complicated her heart disease. "The four chambers of her heart weren't connected," she says. This is her story about why being vaccinated is so important to her to protect both herself and her children, as told to PEOPLE.
I have three children, all with severe heart defects. My 4-year-old daughter, Emma, has Down's Syndrome; kids with Down's Syndrome are more likely to die from COVID and have major complex issues. She just really can't afford to catch it. So I emailed the Health Department and said that I was a health aide for my medically fragile child and they let me sign up to be vaccinated in early January.
I'm a believer in science. I know that [me getting the vaccine] doesn't fully protect my daughter; I could still catch it and give it to her. But I'm her primary caretaker. If I go down, she doesn't have anybody to help her, to take her to therapy appointments, so I need to stay healthy.
It's the analogy of, "Put your mask on first in the airplane." You have to protect yourself in order to take care of your kids — and I have three kids that need to be taken care of. It seemed like a no-brainer to me. Does that sound selfish? To me, it just makes sense.
Courtesy Dana Laukhauf
I decided to homeschool my kids this year, because it was so scary with all the [virus] information that was constantly changing. My oldest son, Henry, is in 4th grade. My younger son, Liam, is in kindergarten, and he's just not the type to sit and look at the screen for hours. I also needed the flexibility to bring my four-year-old daughter to therapy appointments; I'm not going to leave the boys home alone to log in [to school]. So we're homeschooling. It's better than I thought it was going to be. I have good kids, and they're eager learners. We're having a blast. We got 100 new pets and plants, we're cleaning closets, learning life skills.
We limited our doctor's appointments. We stopped my daughter's in-person therapy for speech. We lessened the amount of people that were in our house, for sure. We stopped going out to the grocery store. We avoid playgrounds. Homeschool keeps them safe and away from germs.
Courtesy Dana Laukhauf
[Even before COVID], we were normally locked down to avoid winter germs. Our reality is, when my daughter gets the flu, we get hospitalized. Kids with heart conditions don't tolerate dehydration at all. A minor dehydration for a typical kid ends up being a medical nightmare for a child with heart disease. Any time we get the stomach bug or the flu, at least one of our kids ends up admitted at the hospital for fluids.
If they were to get COVID, my biggest fear is that they can't fight it -- that they don't have the strength. I worry that they can't tolerate a weak heart and a weak lung. I want one thing working for them. If it's not their heart, I'd like their lungs to work, and I heard you [can] get lots of lung disease from COVID.
Obviously, I'm concerned they're going to die. Kids with Down's Syndrome are more likely to die with COVID than a neurotypical person. That's scary. While my kids are strong right now, I just don't want them to have one more thing to overcome. They've already done a lot.
Courtesy Dana Laukhauf
This summer, my daughter was supposed to have a cardiac catheter surgically inserted because she doesn't have enough oxygenated blood going to one side of her lungs. That surgery got bumped. It's not worth the risk. She's doing okay, but you never like to not resolve anything that could be resolved. If she needs a cath to be stronger, I would have liked her to have a cath. I get scared that we're missing something, or something is not being managed correctly, because we're avoiding doctor's appointments for fear of getting exposed.
I'm worried, too, specifically about my daughter and her delays because she's not in school. It's scary that this is the time where her brain is developing fast. I'm not a special ed teacher -- I'm a consultant for non-profits and fundraising. I'm doing the best I can. I know she's missing developmental milestones, because she's not around people who are trained and went to college and got master's degrees to learn how to teach her.
I'm helping them, but am I helping them in the wrong way? Am I teaching them bad habits? It's just scary. I think every parent has that fear with being more active participants in education.
One of the reasons why I got the vaccine is so I can know, with some certainty, that I'm going to be okay and I can take care of them. The caretaker can't get sick. The vaccine has helped offer me a little relief, knowing if I were to catch COVID, hopefully my symptoms would be mild enough to take care of the kids and not get hospitalized for months.
But I also wanted to get vaccinated because I wanted to be part of the growing herd immunity. They said once 70 percent of people have the vaccine, it will be considered herd immunity, which means people can resume their life. [Editors' note: Scientists believe it could require between 70 and 90 percent of people being vaccinated for true herd immunity.]
I've seen friends and family shutting their businesses down and losing money and income. I quit my job so I can be at home. It's impacted everybody. The faster we can get this herd immunity, the quicker our world can be put back together again. I would like to be a part of the solution.
[Once we get herd immunity], I look forward to someday my kids being in school. I want to be able to go out to dinner with my girlfriends and not worry about catching a virus that could kill my family. I'd like to be able to wander Hobby Lobby for hours.
Courtesy Dana Laukhauf
After I got the vaccine, I went on a date night with my husband, Kent. I know I'm not 100 percent protected, but it just feels really empowering to just feel like you're a part of the change. The whole world is in this horrendous spiral downward; knowing it's tilting up just a tiny, tiny bit, to be a part of it, is really cool.
Obviously, I washed my hands like a maniac anyway. But it's nice to know that eventually, I'll be able to go to the grocery store and not feel like I'll end up in the hospital two weeks later.
Before being released to the public, vaccine-makers went through large, lengthy clinical trials to ensure that their product is completely safe. On Sept. 8, nine of the leading vaccine makers — including Pfizer and Moderna — signed a pledge vowing to follow "high ethical standards" and not rush a vaccine into production before it is proven to work.
As information about the coronavirus pandemic rapidly changes, PEOPLE is committed to providing the most recent data in our coverage. Some of the information in this story may have changed after publication. For the latest on COVID-19, readers are encouraged to use online resources from the CDC, WHO and local public health departments. PEOPLE has partnered with GoFundMe to raise money for the COVID-19 Relief Fund, a GoFundMe.org fundraiser to support everything from frontline responders to families in need, as well as organizations helping communities. For more information or to donate, click here.