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Young Auckland mum's vaccination plea after life-threatening battle with COVID

Auckland, New Zealand

Ana Waalkens is telling her story because she wants everyone, especially fellow Pasifika - she has Tongan heritage - to get vaccinated so they don't suffer as she and her family had.

Ana Waalkens and her children, from left, Bruno, 15, Tilly, 6, Tania, 11, and Bassy, 12, all caught Covid-19 in August. The kids suffered no symptoms, but Waalkens nearly died. Photo / Sylvie Whinray/ New Zealand Herald.

By Cherie Howie, Reporter NZ Herald.

When Ana Waalkens returned to her kids after almost losing her life to Covid-19, her young daughter told her she was lying awake at night to make sure her mum was still breathing.

Waalkens spent a week in Auckland City Hospital's intensive care unit after falling ill days after a growing Delta outbreak was discovered in Auckland in August - and before the 38-year-old was eligible to be vaccinated.

She doesn't know how she was infected.

Despite being fit and healthy - Waalkens clocked a 20km run the night before symptoms began - the Remuera mum-of-four spent a hellish two weeks battling the deadly virus, at times screaming that she couldn't breathe and on morphine for pain she likened to "walking with razor blades through your joints".

While in intensive care there were two code reds - "that's when you're about to die", Waalkens said, and hospital staff called her parents to tell them their daughter was fighting hard for her life.

And all that time Waalkens was in constant fear her also Covid-19-positive kids, especially her eldest son who has cystic fibrosis and diabetes, would die from the virus without mum at their side.

The trauma her illness left on 11-year-old Tania cut especially deep.

When Waalkens was eventually reunited with two of her kids in MIQ, the youngsters' own time in managed isolation was almost complete.

But Tania wanted to stay on with her mum "because she was so worried I was gonna die", Waalkens said.

"My 11-year-old lost her twin to asthma six years ago. I think she feared the worst after a week of me being in hospital. She kept thinking, 'Oh, we've lost her sister, her twin, am I gonna go too?'

"I had her in my room for her last two nights in MIQ, and she said she'd wake up at night and watch me breathe, because she thought I was going to stop.

"I feel I've emotionally scarred her. I think she's fine now, but it was rough on her at the time."

Waalkens is telling her story because she wants everyone, especially fellow Pasifika - she has Tongan heritage - to get vaccinated so they don't suffer as she and her family had.

Or worse.

"The other person I was in ICU with died. I have clinics [outpatient care] each week now and last week they told me that in that group of the first people that got sick [in August] there were three of us that were in ICU [in Auckland hospitals].

"And I'm the only one that's walked out alive."

Her mum works at Middlemore Hospital and Waalkens was disturbed to hear of "heaps of people not getting vaccinated because they're scared".

"I just think, 'My God, you don't want to end up like me'. And I was super healthy."

She began feeling achy on August 21, four days after the country went into level 4 lockdown, but a Covid test the next day was negative. Two days later Waalkens, after checking it was okay with vaccination centre staff, received her first Pfizer jab alongside her two sons.

She now believes she was already infected with Covid-19 when vaccinated, and two days later was so unwell with aches, nausea and blurred vision she went to an after-hours doctor.

After being admitted to Auckland City Hospital with pneumonia on August 27 - Waalkens was in so much pain getting dressed to go to hospital her daughter had to pull up her tights - the young mum received her first positive Covid-19 test.

"Before I went to ICU [on August 29], when I wasn't on all the sedatives to relax me, I remember screaming in the room saying, 'I can't breathe', and I was on full oxygen.

"I just couldn't get the oxygen to my lungs and I was so panicked about it."

Covid-19 patient Ana Waalkens hooked up to a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine in Auckland City Hospital in August. Photo / New Zealand Herald.

Waalkens was put on a continuous positive airway pressure [CPAP] machine, and later a respirator.

The breathing tubes down her throat meant she couldn't talk, communicating instead by text.

Her only concern was her children, especially her son with cystic fibrosis, a life-threatening disorder which damages the lungs and digestive system.

"I just remember thinking of the kids the whole time ... 'God, if they get this, look at me - they're gonna die'. I was messaging the nurse saying, 'If my son gets this, I won't see him, and he'll die'.

"It was horrific."

She was able to video call her kids, who were in MIQ with their dads, but kept the camera off her face.

That was to protect them, although she was never worried about herself, Waalkens said.

"I just thought, 'I'm going to be fine, because the kids need me so much that this is just going to pass'. Maybe I was in another world, I don't know, but I just worried for them so much."

But the kids, aged between 6 and 15, were fine. None had symptoms.

Ana Waalkens has a simple message for unvaccinated Kiwis - get the jab now. The 38-year-old Auckland mum nearly died after becoming infected with Covid-19 in August. Photo / Sylvie Whinray / New Zealand Herald.

It was Waalkens who was fighting for her life. Twice, doctors and nurses rushed to her aid after a "code red" was called.

"Code red is when you're about to die … the first one, they shouted code red and everyone came running in. There was like five doctors, five nurses, the whole room was packed with people doing all this stuff to me.

"They cut off my clothes, I was fully naked, I was like, 'What the heck?'… They covered my bottom half, but they had all the things to monitor my heart … and they pumped my body full of stuff."

A second code red followed a day later, Waalkens said, "But that was much more relaxed for me because I was on morphine."

It was a different story for Waalkens family, including her father, Queen's Counsel Harry Waalkens, and none of whom were allowed to visit.

"My family and friends all thought I was going to die. I feel for my parents, my God it must've been so bad for them."

Waalkens still doesn't know what sparked the code red call.

After a week in intensive care she began to improve, and was eventually discharged from hospital on September 6, arriving at Novotel MIQ wearing only in a hospital gown.

With only supermarket or pharmacy deliveries allowed, Waalkens could only dress after buying underwear and tights online from Countdown and borrowing her daughter's T-shirts. 

Ana Waalkens, pictured before she went into Auckland City Hospital's ICU, was a fit and healthy 38-year-old when she caught Covid-19. Photo: New Zealand Herald.

Since diagnosed with long Covid, she has liver damage from the drugs needed to keep her alive in hospital and her lung function is about 70 per cent. She's still not well enough for her second jab.

Waalkens doesn't know her long-term prognosis, but she does know she was lucky.

"At the clinic last week I said, 'I'm hungry as but I still can't taste or smell. When's that gonna come back?'

"And the doctors were like, 'Honestly Ana, that is the smallest price to pay to have walked out alive'."

Only three of the 188 people hospitalised in New Zealand's Delta outbreak were fully immunised - which means at least two weeks have passed since their second vaccination - and Covid-19 cases in fully vaccinated Kiwis account for just 4.5 per cent of total cases, the New Zealand director-general of health Ashley Bloomfield said on Thursday.

Her message to all eligible Kiwis who remain unvaccinated, whether through fear or choice, is to get the jab now, Waalkens said. "All these anti-vaxxers that post this dribble that they'll just up their doses of vitamins - trust me, no amount of vitamins is gonna shake this."

Same goes for those saying they "trust their immune system", Waalkens said. "It's just bulls**t. I've never been sick in my life, honestly I've never had the flu, and I've just never been this sick before, nothing like it.

"If this story isn't enough to get people vaccinated, honestly I don't know what is? I'm lucky to be here. I'm so lucky to be here."

- Reproduced with permission from the NZ Herald