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'I’m not going to be prisoner to COVID:" Immunocompromised Nebraskan navigates life in pandemic

Posted at 9:53 AM, Jan 22, 2022
and last updated 2022-01-22 13:40:33-05

OMAHA, Neb. (KMTV) — Around 7 million people in the United States are immunocompromised, putting them at higher risk for serious illness, even when vaccinated.

Rowena Cage of Bellevue is one of such Americans living with autoimmune issues and trying to find the balance between caution and fear during a pandemic. Cage, who uses she/they pronouns, often takes to Instagram to discuss the importance of finding joy in everyday life.

"Sometimes the small stuff is the best stuff, so take time to savor every moment," they said. "You know, a kiss on the forehead, or when you're having a bad day and a stranger just smiles at you. These tiny little things that can totally ripple."

Her joyful outlook has helped her get through two very difficult years.

Just a few months ago, her autoimmune disorder sent her to the hospital, where she was intubated for several days. It was a traumatic experience she's still recovering from.

“It’s just a hard, challenging way to live, not knowing if today is when you’ll have something," Cage said.

Throughout the pandemic, they've had to make adjustments — being more cautious in public, leaving behind their real estate business and limiting physical interactions.

“My mom, she works in the ER right now, and I get to see her," Cage said. "She knows that I’m high-risk and that she works in a place with that, and we don’t hug.”

Dr. Kelsey Witherspoon, an infectious disease expert with CHI Health, said there are many people in our community who are still high-risk.

“We are seeing a lot of messaging about how omicron is milder, but just because it’s milder for one person, doesn’t necessarily mean it's milder for everyone else," Witherspoon said. "So we are still seeing a lot of concerning patient admissions in those who are not vaccinated and also in some of our immunocompromised patients."

Cage said some of that messaging has been hurtful, making her feel like people's lives are being valued less because of preexisting conditions.

“One death is enough," Cage said. "We don’t need, ‘Well it was only one or only two.’ Like how does that make sense? A life is life.”

Witherspoon said even when doing what they can to protect themselves, immunocompromised people can be in danger.

“Even though there is vaccination available and boosters available, what their immune system is going to do with the virus is difficult to predict," Witherspoon said.

Witherspoon said masking, social distancing, and getting vaccinated are important steps to prevent omicron from spreading to vulnerable people.

“You never know what the person next to you is going through, and protecting yourself is also a great way to protect them," Witherspoon said.

For Cage, she wants people to be respectful and if they aren't going to wear a mask, to keep their distance.

"There’s this negative thing you have if you go into a space and you’re wearing a mask or asking someone, because it’s your life," Cage said. "And not everybody is understanding.”

Cage said she is focusing on what she can control, saying she can only control how she responds to the outside world when it feels like its not valuing her well-being.

“I’m not going to be prisoner to COVID and most importantly to myself," Cage said. "If you keep in a headspace of ‘this is what’s going to be,' and live a life of fear, then you’re not going to thrive through this.”

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