An Alabama mother who lost her son to covid says not getting the vaccine is her biggest regret

A selfie showing Curt Carpenter, his mother, Christy, and younger sister Cayla. (Christy Carpenter) (The Washington Post)

These days, Christy Carpenter finds strength in her family and faith. But on some days, one question keeps ringing in her head: "Why?"

After weeks of battling through oxygen treatments, her 28-year-old son died in the hospital two months after being diagnosed with covid-19.

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Now in Carpenter's Alabama home, the room belonging to Curt, her "beautiful baby boy" and firstborn, remains empty - a painful reminder of a life that could have been saved if the family had decided to get vaccinated, she said.

"It took watching my son die and me suffering the effects of covid for us to realize we need the vaccine," the mother said. "We did not get vaccinated when we had the opportunity and regret that so much now."

Although for her it will always be impossible to understand the reason for Curt's passing, Carpenter said she is determined to not let her son's death be futile.

"If Curt were here today, he would make it his mission to encourage everyone to get vaccinated," Carpenter said. "Cayla, his sister, and I are carrying out that mission in his memory."

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Curt Carpenter was a young and otherwise healthy man. While at home, his mother said, he would spoil her with the "best hugs" and a daily dosage of kindness. Curt was autistic, but Christy Carpenter said he "lived life to the fullest" and had a passion for all things Pokémon, trains, video games and frogs.

The pandemic dealt a big blow to the tightknit Carpenter family on March 5, when Curt, his younger sister and his mother were diagnosed with the virus, which has claimed about 610,000 lives across the nation.

At first, the three experienced mild symptoms that slowly began to alleviate. Then, a week later, everything took a turn for the worse.

When their oxygen saturation levels dropped dangerously, the mother and son were rushed to Grandview Medical Center in Birmingham. A day later, they both developed pneumonia, and Curt Carpenter was put on a ventilator.

The constantly changing oxygen levels paired with a pneumothorax - a collapsed lung - were too much for Curt Carpenter's body. His organs began shutting down. He was declared dead May 2.

His last uttered phrase is still etched in Christy Carpenter's mind: "This is not a hoax, this is real," Curt said, according to his mother.

His mother said Curt Carpenter at first believed that the coronavirus was a hoax. The whole family was hesitant to get vaccinated when the shots became available.

"It took years to create other vaccines, and the coronavirus vaccine was created very quickly," Christy Carpenter said. "That made us very nervous."

The Carpenters' reluctance is not unique in a state with the lowest vaccination rates in the country. According to data from the Alabama Department of Public Health, only 33.9 percent of the state's eligible population has been fully vaccinated, and 41.6 percent has received at least one dose.

With cases beginning to climb in the state, health officials are attempting to boost confidence in the vaccine - but difficulties in rollout paired with distrust have become major hurdles.

"We find that there's a lot of mistrust with messages that come from state government, from public health, in particular, from the media," said Scott Harris, chief executive of the Alabama Department of Public Health. "It's just a multilayered problem. There's just a lot of different people who have a lot of different reasons for not getting the vaccine. And it's just hard to address them in a big way."

Much like the Carpenters, unvaccinated people are often the ones to endure the most severe effects of the virus. In Alabama, they account for more than 95 percent of the current covid-related hospitalizations, Harris said.

Yet, for some, the disease does not end with a negative coronavirus test. Its aftermath can be just as harrowing.

Even after being discharged from the hospital, Christy Carpenter said, she could not drive or work until late May. She said she has been on pulmonary therapy ever since and still struggles with fatigue, hair loss and "covid brain."

"I lose my train of thought easily, can't remember parts of conversations, can't remember people's names that I have known for years," she said. "I sometimes think I'm going crazy, but I know I'm not."

Even worse, she deals with the backwash of memories of her son - a "social butterfly who knew no strangers" and whose time was cut short. Yet his death has inspired a renewed appreciation for life and a mission to protect it.

"If we can help keep people healthier and possibly save lives by encouraging others to take the vaccine, then Curt's death was not in vain," Christy said. "Life is a precious gift from God."

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