‘Panicked’ Wilton family takes son with cancer to Vermont for COVID vaccine

WILTON — Deborah List is glad she didn’t wait.

List’s son, Luke Schwartz, 16, was diagnosed last summer with a rare kind of thyroid cancer. She had hoped her son’s condition meant he would be prioritized for the COVID-19 vaccine. But Gov. Ned Lamont instead decided the vaccine would be rolled out based largely on age.

“We were sort of panicked,” List said of the governor’s plan. “We thought we would be able to get Luke a vaccine within days, and then it changed.”

Instead of waiting, List took her son to get vaccinated in Vermont, where the family also has a home. Unlike Connecticut, Vermont began allowing people 16 and older with certain medical conditions to start getting the vaccine last month. On March 16, Schwartz got his first dose of the vaccine and he’s slated to get his second dose on Tuesday.

“It feels good,” Schwartz said of his partial vaccination. “It’s only one step, but it’s a step in the right direction.”

As all Connecticut residents 16 and older became eligible last week, Lamont said those with five medical conditions, including cancer, would get “enhanced access” to the vaccine.

But List said she doesn’t regret her decision.

“This doesn’t mean Luke would have been able to get an appointment right away,” she said. “I’ve yet to get a call from a doctor saying, ‘We have an opening for Luke (for the vaccine).’”

Throughout his young life, List said her son has suffered from various health issues, including dysautonomia, a disruption of the nervous system that manifests in such symptoms as rapid heart rate, an inability to control body temperature and confusion.

“It’s like having a teenager with dementia,” List said.

Schwartz’s condition requires having “a team of doctors” to treat his symptoms, his mother said. It was during a visit to one of these doctors that led to Schwartz’s diagnosis with Medullary thyroid cancer. According to the American Thyroid Association, Medullary thyroid cancer accounts for 1 to 2 percent of thyroid cancers in the United States.

Receiving that diagnosis during the COVID-19 pandemic was scary for List and the rest of the family.

“This is a kid we did not want getting COVID,” she said.

But she had hoped his condition would boost his chances of getting the vaccine early. When that wasn’t the case, List said, she knew she had to do something. She got the appointment in Vermont, even though it meant driving for hours.

The effort, List said, was worth it to protect her family. Though Schwartz isn’t fully vaccinated yet, she already has peace of mind that he has at least partial protection.

“He went (last) week for blood work and it was the first time I wasn’t entirely anxious about the experience,” she said.

For her son, he wishes Connecticut prioritized at-risk residents like himself from the start.

“It would have been nice to have people at higher risk first in line because if they get (COVID) it’s much worse,” he said.