START Center encourages patients with severe illnesses to get COVID-19 vaccine

Warren Larson, a START Center patient with a blood disorder, got vaccinated after being advised by his doctor

SAN ANTONIO – A man battling a severe illness was hesitant about getting the COVID-19 vaccine, but after seeking advice from his doctor and ultimately getting vaccinated, he’s encouraging others with hesitancy in vulnerable health communities to do so as well.

Warren Larson, 66, was diagnosed with paroxysmal nocturnal hemoglobinuria, or PNH, in 1990.

“It is a fairly rare blood condition,” Larson said. “There are different degrees for this condition. For some, it can shorten lives. It is an anemia, so it causes a lack of energy, tiredness, and if untreated, it can get really bad. There is also a blood clotting issue and pretty bad abdominal cramping.”

Warren said that the start of the pandemic brought on concerns regarding his illness if he were to get COVID-19.

“If I catch a virus, it triggers an immune response in my system,” Warren said. “I get hit double by any virus, whether it is a cold or the flu, and then I get hit with the condition because the treatment that I have can’t handle it -- it gets overwhelmed. It is like a one-two punch. So we were following the guidelines like wearing masks and avoiding large groups of people. Sanitation was a big factor as well.”

Warren said he has not tested positive for COVID-19 during the pandemic. Though he was taking precautions, he said he didn’t want to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

“Even before the pandemic, I did not do vaccines,” Larson said. “A vaccine would trigger my condition.”

Dr. Steven Kalter, oncologist and hematologist with the START Center for Cancer Care, highly recommends people battling severe illnesses get the vaccine despite the hesitancy.

“In general, the side effects and serious reactions are low, and the protection it provides is so great, so we extremely recommend people get the vaccine,” Kalter said. “The benefit definitely outweighs the risk. Those who are vaccinated, they are generally protected well enough so that the illness is not severe and they don’t require hospitalization.

Kalter, who is Larson’s doctor, recommended the vaccine to Larson despite the possible side effects.

“(Kalter) goes, ‘You’d be worst off if you were to get the virus without that vaccine.’ So I went ahead and got that vaccine,” Larson said.

Larson said he had a high fever, but he was back on his feet after a couple of days.

“I decided, ‘Oh, I guess I will go play some golf and take it easy, and I actually won a golf tournament after that. So how’s that?’” he said with a laugh.

The START Center offers the Moderna Vaccine due to its lengthier shelf life. It has administered at least 1,700 full doses so far. Doctors started providing a booster shot to those patients undergoing active treatment Wednesday.

“I am all about wearing the mask and getting the vaccine to protect against this virus,” Kalter said.

“For others who have severe illnesses and who are hesitant, if they were thinking like me -- they just don’t want to have their condition triggered because that is a real challenge to get through -- I would say listen to what your doctor tells you to do,” Larson said. “They are trained in this area, and they know a lot more about it than I do, so I am going to listen to them. Again, I didn’t want to take the vaccine. I did. I did have an immune response to it. It only lasted a day. It is a lot better than having to spend days or weeks fighting off COVID. I would just say listen to your doctor.”

About the Authors:

Japhanie Gray joined 10 News as an anchor in March 2022.

Luis Cienfuegos is a photographer at KSAT 12.