Sean and Shane Harrell are identical 47-year-old twins, so they’ve always done everything together. They're both mechanics, working together at their family-owned business in Clovis — and they both got COVID-19.
“We’ve had a lot of fun, a lot of laughs together, tricked a few people here and there … a lot of good times,” says Shane of being a twin. But sharing COVID-19 wasn’t one of them, he adds.
While they both got sick and were hospitalized within days of each other at Community Regional Medical Center, Sean had it worse than his brother, Shane. They are among the nearly 11,000 COVID-19 patients Community Medical Centers has cared for in its hospitals since the pandemic began — 50% more patients than all of San Francisco County’s acute care hospitals combined.
"You know what's crazy is we're twins. Our genes are identical and he was sick for six days and had breathing problems, but it knocked me down for a month," Sean says.
Brother's cough infects his twin
Neither twin was vaccinated — something they both wish now they had done together.
After Sean got back from a July trip to Las Vegas with his wife, he went back to work and says he coughed, unmasked, right next to his brother Shane. At the time, Shane joked it was a "COVID cough.” That's when Sean thinks he exposed his brother to the coronavirus.
"I get on the tool truck and I let out this cough and my brother is like, 'Whoa! What was that? That was a COVID cough if I ever heard one.’ And I'm like, 'What? Whatever,' and I went about my day," says Sean.
The father of three started feeling bad at the end of the day. When his wife called saying she felt sick, he went home.
Both were COVID-19 positive.
"Turns out I did have COVID, and I transferred it to my brother," Sean says.
COVID-caused clotting results in stroke
After trying to tough it out at home, Sean had to go to Community Regional on Aug. 7 when his oxygen levels got so low it was hard to breathe. His wife was sick, but able to recover at home.
Shane soon followed his twin to Community Regional on Aug. 10. Shane’s wife was vaccinated and only had a cough.
When Sean was in the ICU at Community Regional, he had to go on a ventilator and wasn't released from the hospital until Sept. 2, after suffering a stroke from COVID-caused clotting and then doing physical therapy at Community Regional’s Leon S. Peters Rehabilitation Center.
"I had a mini stroke and so it caused numbness in my arm. I lost sensation, so I'm basically regaining strength in my right hand," describes Sean.
It was hard for him to do exercises like moving pegs on a board or even lifting his arm to feed himself. He says the rehab is helping him gain back the strength he needs to go back to work as a mechanic.
Shane was released after nearly a week of treatment on Aug. 17 with oxygen that he still needs when he moves around.
"I didn't get hit as hard as him. I was in the hospital for six days, but it was a miserable six days. You got everything plugged into you, and taped to you," Shane says.
Plea for others to get vaccinated
The brothers both say they hope others who are not vaccinated will listen to what happened to them and change their minds. If they could go back, both said they’d get the shot.
"You know, a lot of people are like 'Oh, it's no big deal, it's just a cold. I had a cough.’ Well that's fine — that was you. But there's other people who wish they only had a cough. They died," says Shane.
While Shane wasn’t for or against the vaccine, his brother had stronger feelings before his hospital experience.
"I was an anti-vaxxer,” says Sean, explaining his reasoning was, “I'm not getting this shot, I don't know what's in it. I'm not putting something in my body that I don't know what's in it.” But now he says, “Going through what I went through — I've been in the hospital for 30 days. I wish I would've gotten the vaccine."
He describes the toll that decision has taken on him: "I had to get five blood transfusions, a stroke ... basically, I have to learn how to walk again. I have numbness in my arm, I have to learn how to use my arm again ... all because I didn't get this vaccine."
Shane also continues to suffer from his COVID-19 bout. When he does even a little bit of strenuous activity, he’s winded and has to sit down — and that’s while hooked up to an oxygen tank. “My lungs are completely just beat up right now," he explains.
Shane chokes up when he talks about the last month. “The hardest part of this whole ordeal was seeing my brother intubated with every tube going everywhere possible and trying to have a conversation ... and just, you know, the only response you can get was like a blink of an eye,” says Shane with teary eyes.
“It was probably the worst thing that I've ever seen - having to deal with that ... coming from a twin brother, we've always been so close and grown up together, it was real hard and tough to see and deal with,” he says.
Thanking their care team at Community Regional
And while their COVID-19 experience was different, their care was not.
“I would love, love, love to thank the hospital staff here at Community Regional,” says Shane. “The care we got was awesome.”
“More than awesome,” Sean chimes in. “Those workers are angels.”
“They have to be so over-worked, so stressed out, but when they come into our rooms, you don’t see it,” Shane says.
Sean finishes his twin’s sentence, “…They’re happy, cheerful — they’re angels.”
A very close call
Today the Harrell twins are both home, still on oxygen, and they have a new goal — convincing as many people as possible to get vaccinated.
While Fresno County has just passed a milestone of 1 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine administered, more than 46% of the county is still unvaccinated, a vaccination rate that lags behind the statewide average. A month after the twins were discharged, hospitals throughout the county were struggling to find enough staff and ICU beds to care for a surge in new COVID-19 patients.
“I’m going to push my friends to get the vaccine every chance I get,” Sean says.
“I will be getting the vaccine as soon as I can,” says Shane. So will Sean.
“It was a very close call — my kids almost didn't have a dad,” Sean adds.