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The Rev. Don Ajoko gives the anointing of the sick sacrament to Gretchen Blank's husband, who has COVID and is on a ventilator. 

Editor's note: This is a discrete chapter of a larger story about the strain on Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center as the hospital faces Louisiana’s fourth — and worst — wave of the coronavirus.

When Gretchen Blank of St. Amant first visited her husband in Our Lady of the Lake’s coronavirus intensive care unit, he didn’t recognize her.

Under layer upon layer of personal protective equipment, including a gown, gloves, an N95 mask, a surgical mask and a face shield, he thought she was a nurse. It wasn’t until she spoke that he realized she was his wife.

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Gretchen Blank prays for her husband with the Rev. Don Ajoko, a chaplain at Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center.

Blank described the pain of visiting her sick husband in the hospital as a reporter and photographer from The Advocate | The Times-Picayune spent time in the hospital’s coronavirus ICUs this week. The newspaper agreed not to publish any identifying information about patients unless they consented to it, but Blank agreed to publicly share her and her husband’s stories because she said she wanted to save other families from enduring the hardship her family is facing.

Wesley Blank, 56, is on a ventilator in the hospital’s “special disease unit,” for its sickest coronavirus patients. Blank visits him every day.

Neither of them was vaccinated before he got sick. Blank said she and her husband were adamantly opposed: They worried about side effects, and thought they were healthy enough to shake off COVID if they got infected.

Blank had a change of heart about the vaccine after her husband — “a very healthy man, never sick a day in his life” — was knocked down by the virus. She’s gotten her first dose of the Moderna vaccine and will go back next month for her second. Her arm was slightly sore. Her husband was unable to breathe.

“This is what made me have peace with it,” she said. “If you’re going into battle, you want every possible protection. If you’re not vaccinated, you have nothing.”

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“You don’t want to be here,” she added.

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Gretchen Blank prays the rosary while visiting her husband, who has COVID and is on a ventilator. 

The vast majority of the 3,000-plus coronavirus patients crowding Louisiana’s hospitals are unvaccinated. Across the coronavirus wards at Our Lady of the Lake, Baton Rouge General and Ochsner Health System’s Baton Rouge campus, 427 patients are unvaccinated, versus 49 patients who received the vaccine.

“There is a treatment,” said Dr. James Ford, a pulmonologist and critical care physician treating The Lake’s sickest COVID patients. “Get the vaccine.”

Blank carried rosaries, wore earrings with Mary on them and leaned on her Catholic faith. When a hospital chaplain asked if he should give her husband the anointing of the sick sacrament.

“Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy,” she repeated after him. She said that the sacrament made her heart feel full again.

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Gretchen Blank's rosary beads gently rest on her husband's blanket. 

She pulled back her husband’s bedsheet while he lay on his stomach to help him breathe. The Rev. Don Ajoko placed his gloved fingertips on her husband’s arm, pressing oil into his skin.

“Give life and health to our brother,” he prayed.