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Straight Talk with Dr. Clint Sowards

Clint Sowards

SAN LUIS VALLEY — In speaking for the first time with Dr. Clint Sowards with San Luis Valley Health, it’s abundantly clear he is bright, optimistic and passionate about both the practice of medicine and providing good care to his patients,

It’s also clear that this native of the San Luis Valley is not a doc who pulls his punches. Dr. Sowards calls it as he sees it. And, when it comes to COVID-19, he has seen quite a lot.

Last December, Sowards’ best friend and brother-in-law (having married Sowards’ wife’s sister) was diagnosed and later hospitalized with COVID. The weeks that followed were tough. Very tough. “Donald got really good care,” Sowards says. “I mean, his brother-in-law was his doctor. I was there, and we did a lot. He had full medical attention 24/7, and we still couldn’t stop what was happening.”

Donald died just a few weeks ago, three months after becoming infected, three months characterized by suffering. “He died of complications due to COVID that were a result of what COVID did to his lungs.

He was thirty-six years old, and he left behind his wife and six kids.”

Vaccines, proven effective at preventing the disease and potentially tragic outcomes, are now available to everyone over the age of 16. Yet, recent polls report that 25% to 30% of Americans are saying they won’t get vaccinated. Those conflicting facts make the discussion of vaccine hesitancy not only inevitable but necessary.

“I encounter people who are concerned about vaccines all the time -- not just COVID. Childhood vaccines, too. As a doctor, I’ve looked at the evidence and I tell them I’m convinced the vaccine is beneficial. With that being said, every vaccine, every medication, every medical treatment comes with certain risks, so I can appreciate their concern. But in the case of the vaccine, it’s such a very small risk and it’s far outweighed by the benefits. Still, it’s the risk that people usually focus on.”

Sowards attributes some of the hesitation to a kind of numbness. “We’ve gotten numb to the horrible illnesses of the world, and we are so blessed,” he says. “But that blessing comes with a small curse because we’ve forgotten the origins – the illnesses that made the vaccines so necessary in the first place. So, the adverse effects of the vaccines – the ‘scary things’ that people hear about really stick out.”

Dr. Sowards also has patients who are just overwhelmed and not sure what to do. “People need to get to the root of the problem,” he says. “I ask them what are they really scared of and help them figure out what is their actual concern. Are they scared about the vaccine? If so, I can sit down at the computer and show them the data. Are they afraid of needles? That’s a very real fear for some people. Is it because they don’t trust the government? I hear that from patients, too, and we talk about the likelihood that there is some great conspiracy that no one’s talking about. If I can help people get to the root of their hesitation, the root of their concern, I can usually help them get through it. Until people actually figure out what they’re scared of, they can’t move forward. Once they figure that out, they can make a healthy decision. But ultimately, it’s up to the person to decide for themselves. I can encourage, I can educate but, ultimately, it’s their life and their choice.”

As restrictions are loosened and people feel more free to resume what feels like a pre-pandemic, normal lifestyle, the tendency is to think the threat from the virus has diminished. Sowards understands that tendency. “People are frustrated with the quarantine. They’re frustrated with kids having to stay home for a week or having to help kids with their homework at night when they’re doing school online. I understand that. But the virus is just as serious now as it’s ever been. And, speaking not just as a physician but as a person whose family member has been directly affected by COVID, my resolve to encourage people to get vaccinated has just grown stronger.”

And with that, the loss of his best friend comes back into the conversation. “If the vaccine had been available earlier on, if he’d had a chance to get vaccinated, I know there’s a very slight risk Donald might have still contracted the virus or there’s the very small risk he might have suffered from one of the side effects of the vaccine. He might have had fevers and body aches or some other minor reactions. But any one of us – any one of us – would choose the minor side effects over losing our loved one or our own life and the peace of knowing that, even if a loved one dies, we’ve done everything we could to save them. And I can guarantee that, if anyone had seen what Donald went through, what he suffered as he declined, it would light a fire under them to get the vaccine as soon as possible. ”

Despite having spent months working with patients who were working through their hesitations, despite the heavy sorrow that undoubtedly comes with losing a beloved brother-in-law and best friend, Dr. Sowards remains optimistic and focused on the benefits of what has transpired over the last year.

“The pandemic has helped people understand when they’re sick and when they’re not,” he says. “And it’s made me understand my role as a physician and a provider and a friend and the importance of my role in helping someone who is ill. It’s lit a fire in me and made me more passionate about vaccines, about taking care of a patient’s diabetes, about getting people to quit smoking because all of those things affect a person in one way or another. None of us are perfect. But this pandemic has strengthened my resolve to be better and to help others be better, as well.”