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To Protect Dad, This LA Family Enrolled In COVID-19 Vaccine Trials

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From left: Aubry, Mark, Lisa and Sam. (Courtesy of Lisa Henderson)
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The things we do for family. Consider the Henderson/Deetjens of South Pasadena: In an attempt to better protect dad from COVID-19, mom and their two teenagers agreed to participate in trials of experimental coronavirus vaccines.

They took the risk because dad, Mark Deetjen, has a weakened immune system due to a double organ transplant and a subsequent heart attack.

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In 2013, Deetjen had a simultaneous kidney and pancreas transplant to help rectify damage caused by Type 1 diabetes. Since then, he has taken medications designed to keep his body from rejecting the transplanted organs -- but the meds make it hard to fight off infections. For Deetjen, like millions of immunocompromised people, getting the coronavirus could mean a stint in the intensive care unit, or even death.

Because of Deetjen's condition, his wife Lisa Henderson and their two teenage children were very careful not to contract the virus. They limited interactions and wore masks every time they left the house. But last summer, his medical situation changed.

'CAN YOU DRIVE ME TO THE ER?'

"In June, I started rejecting my kidney," Deetjen said. "I was in the hospital, a little bit over a week. They bombarded me with antirejection medication. So that brought my immune system down even further."

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Mark Deetjen at home in South Pasadena. (Courtesy of Lisa Henderson)
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To keep safe from a potential COVID-19 infection, Deetjen quarantined from his family in a separate apartment for two months after he left the hospital.

But a few weeks after returning home, he walked into the kitchen one day and, according to his 18-year-old son Sam Deetjen, said, "'I don't feel so good. Can you drive me to the ER?' ... I think I have a heart attack.'"

Sam grabbed his car keys and rushed his dad to the hospital, where they found out that Mark was right.

His body was still rejecting the transplanted organs, causing a blood clot and the heart attack. Mark spent another week in the hospital.

"I've been recovering since but you start adding things on top of each other, right?" Mark said. "I have my transplant by immunosuppression, heart condition. So everybody was on high alert."

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'IT JUST SEEMED LIKE AN OBVIOUS WAY TO PROTECT HIM'

In December, only people over the age of 65 or in frontline health positions could get vaccinated in California. Even with his medical history, Mark, 50, was too young to qualify. As COVID-19 cases surged in California and the threat increased, Mark and his doctor had no idea when he would get vaccinated.

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Lisa Henderson is an architect. (Courtesy of Mark Deetjen)

So the family hatched a plan. Lisa had seen vaccine trials recruiting on Facebook. She was afraid she and their kids could be waiting months for a federally authorized vaccine while Mark remained vulnerable.

"I looked into it and then it just seemed like an obvious way for us to protect him because he wasn't in line yet to get a shot," Lisa said.

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In the hopes of creating an immunized bubble around Mark, Lisa, Sam and Aubry volunteered for clinical vaccine trials, despite the risk of unexpected side effects from experimental drugs. Lisa and Sam are in the adult Novavax tests. Sam knows he could have received a placebo.

"There's a 66.6% chance that I'm vaccinated, and there's a 33.3% chance that I'm not," he said.

The family was surprised by how easy it's been. Every day they answer simple health questions on an app and every few weeks they get their blood tested at a clinic.

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Sam Deetjen is a senior at the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts. He hopes to pursue a career in theater. (Courtesy of Lisa Henderson)

"You go in every two, three weeks, they take your blood. The first few times they shoot you with either placebo or the real thing," Sam said. "And then they ask you a few questions, [you] sign a waiver and get your compensation and you're good to go within maybe 30 minutes maximum."

'YOU'RE BEING PART OF THE SOLUTION, NOT PART OF THE PROBLEM'

Aubry Deetjen is a freshman in high school. At 15, she's too young for any of the currently authorized vaccines so she's participating in Moderna's nationwide vaccine test of roughly 3,000 children ages 12 to 17. That group has had relatively low rates of infection, and the CDC calls fatal cases "rare," but cases can still be severe.

In L.A. County only two children have died of COVID-19 since the pandemic began, but 154,848 have tested positive for the virus. That's why the CDC says vaccinating children is important for public health since they can also spread the virus in their families and communities.

"It just feels like you're being part of the solution, not part of the problem," Aubry said.

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Aubry Deetjen getting the second injection of her clinical trial at the Velocity Clinical Trial site in Banning. (Courtesy of Lisa Henderson)

As with other vaccine trials, she doesn't know if she got the vaccine or a placebo. It's a big topic of conversation with her friends who are also in the trial. She's attended classes virtually and since she's in her first year, she's never met any of her new high school friends in person.

"I was talking to my best friend," Aubry said. "I was like, 'Did you get any symptoms?' because she got her first shot a few weeks ago and she was like, 'No' and then my other friend was like, 'Oh my gosh my arm hurt!'"

Lisa has helped other people sign up for trials and says it's given her a sense of control and purpose during a tumultuous year.

"I can't control COVID. I can't control what other people are going to do, or if someone chooses to have a baby shower down the street," she said. "I can't control any of that. But what I can control is whether I can get other people that want to be in the trial to ultimately help everybody."

'THESE TRIALS HAVE BEEN A GODSEND'

Mark's brother and friends also signed up for the vaccine trials.

"These trials have been a godsend for me, even though I'm not part of them," Mark said. (He's not allowed to participate because of his medical condition.)

"Just the fact that everybody around me cared enough to do that is incredibly humbling," he said.

Because the Moderna and Novavax trials are double blind crossover studies, Lisa, Sam and Aubry all expect to get the actual experimental vaccines in the next few weeks if they haven't already.

But the family doesn't know how well the trial vaccines work. Mark remains immunocompromised. He's in the process of being relisted for a new kidney.

Still, they've made it to one important goal. Solid organ transplant recipients are now prioritized, and last week Mark got the second shot of the Moderna vaccine -- so he's now fully immunized.