An ex-officer's vaccine fear may have killed him. His widow speaks out to save others, his legacy.
For more than 33 years, Ivory Beck Sr. laid his life on the line as a police officer to protect and serve the residents of Memphis, Tennessee. He worked a number of details, including child abuse and undercover drug investigations.
Beck loved his job – he rose through the ranks to sergeant and eventually lieutenant. But he loved his grandchildren more. They called him Big Poppa. Beck retired in 2018 because he said he wanted to be able to take them to school and to freely attend their programs and events without answering calls or rushing back to work. To keep his free health benefits, Beck continued to volunteer as a reserve officer and would occasionally be called to serve.
Beck, 62, was just hitting his retirement stride when coronavirus started to pummel the United States in early 2020. He was spending quality time with his family, especially because his grandchildren were learning from home, and he cherished still having a toe in law enforcement, according to his wife, Cathy.
Ivory Beck was happy and healthy. Until COVID-19 entered his home in late April 2021.
Both he and his daughter, Kristen Beck-Miller, who lives with her parents, contracted the disease. Both were showing symptoms for about four days before they went to the hospital together. Both were admitted, but only one returned home. Ivory Beck languished for nearly two weeks before dying on May 17.
No one in their household had been vaccinated, although Beck had every early opportunity to receive a COVID-19 vaccination, both as an occasional first responder and as someone in his 60s. But he was scared. He talked it over with his wife, but could not shake his hesitancy and distrust that the vaccine could cause harmful health consequences. She said she trusted him to make the right decision for their family.
That fear may have cost him his life.
"He said, 'Cathy, I’m just not sure about it.' He said, 'I can’t get comfortable with what I’m hearing,' " Cathy Beck said of her husband's hesitancy. "Every day he walked out the door for 33 years, I always knew that there was an opportunity he wouldn't come back to me. When he went to the hospital for being ill, I did not expect him to not come back to me. So there has been more of a devastation to me that for 33 years, I prepared that there would be something traumatic. But I never imagined it would be this."
Year of loss, disproportionate devastation
It has been more than a year of loss, of grief, and of that devastation for those who have had to bury friends and family members because their loved ones succumbed to COVID-19. The pain has been numbing, particularly as we struggle to emotionally quantify the more than 600,000 Americans who have died.
But the pandemic has disproportionately affected Black, Latino and Native Americans. There's a direct correlation between the rates of COVID-19 hospitalization and deaths among racial and ethnic groups. A poll of more than 12,000 Americans ages 18 and up on the vaccine released last week by the Commonwealth Fund and the African American Research Collaborative found that unvaccinated people of color are more hesitant about getting the coronavirus vaccine than their white counterparts.
The troubling trend among respondents: 40% of Latino Americans, 41% of Black Americans, and 40% of Native Americans who had not received any vaccination were hesitant to do so, compared with 37% of white Americans.
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Dr. Peter Szilagyi, a professor of pediatrics at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, characterized the poll as a "really well done survey, and people need to pay attention to it." And while disparities exist, there is a historical context to consider, he said.
“Past discrimination clearly affects current perceptions – and we have to acknowledge and address this,” Szilagyi said during last week's webinar announcing the poll results. "Trust is a key factor for everybody – all of the survey respondents – trust in the vaccine, trust in the messenger, trust in where you get the vaccine. Trust. There’s a lot of hesitancy across the board and there’s also access barriers that we have to acknowledge. It’s not all about hesitancy. We have to eliminate barriers to accessing the vaccine. A lot of people don’t know where to go to get the vaccine.”
I understand the reluctance among those who have experienced discrimination in health care. I can even understand the fear about an emergency vaccine that seemed to be developed overnight (it wasn't). But we must trust the science. We must believe the evidence right before our eyes. The coronavirus isn't just disappearing with time; it's not going away because people have built a natural immunity. The vaccine has helped dramatically slow the incidents of infection, illness and death. And more people need to get it. (Full disclosure: I am among the fully vaccinated.)
According to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data tracker, 66% of American adults have received at least one dose and 56% are fully vaccinated. Millions of Americans refuse to get the vaccine, not because of autoimmune concerns or religious beliefs, but because they just don't trust the government or the medical veracity behind it. Others just want to wait and see what happens, when in reality all they will witness is continued death.
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So please listen to Cathy Beck. While her faith won't allow her to talk about regrets, she is sharing the story about the love of her life because she wants her husband's legacy to remain the same one he established decades ago: one of service.
“Nothing that gets done now can bring him back," Cathy Beck told me a month after her husband died. "But I know what can be done now can help change some situations. And if I can be that assistance to help somebody else’s family not to have to endure it through the harshest parts like I had to do, I’m willing to do that.”
A 37-year love story with no goodbye
The Becks met at Middle Tennessee State University in 1981. She was a freshman and he was working registration when their paths crossed. "He said, 'You just look like the kind of woman I could be married to for the rest of my life,' Cathy Beck recalled. "I told him, 'My Mama did not send me to college to get a husband.' She said get a degree, go get a job and be on your own."
They laughed about the encounter for three and a half years, all while falling in love. Cathy Beck said they were blessed with two children, Kristen Beck-Miller, 37, and Ivory Beck Jr., 32.
Their marriage would last 37 years. They never got to say goodbye.
Cathy Beck, 58, said her husband, whom she called IL, had boundless energy for Memphis residents. When he decided to become a police officer, it was with the intent of helping people while offering empathy and doing it with a megawatt smile. He laughed. He loved. He hurt when others did. He cared.
“He always has made a commitment to take care of community and to bring a difference into the lives of young Black men, Cathy Beck said of her husband. “He didn’t believe in family just for us; he believed in family for our friends in the community. It was never a person he wouldn’t try to help if he could help them.”
These days, Beck's grandchildren are struggling the most without Big Poppa. R.J. Miller, 11; Ivy Monroe Beck, 7; and Chrishaun Miller, 6, don't understand why it had to happen to their family. The youngest, in particular cries throughout the night and takes his grandfather's belongings and hides them under his pillow. He often tells his grandmother, "I just wish y’all would go get him – bring him back to us."
"He has been Big Poppa not just to our three, but to a whole lot of boys that have walked through this door that he took out to go fishing, to play ball, garden, cut grass, take the trash out, all while he was trying to instill more values in them,” Cathy Beck told me.
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When I ended my conversation with Cathy Beck, I told her I wished I had met her husband. I thanked her for opening up to a stranger and for giving of herself and her husband. In death, just as in life, Ivory Beck hopefully will make a difference.
Because we can’t afford to wait and watch for the adverse vaccine fallout that will never come, particularly as most states have lifted restrictions. COVID-19 vaccines have proven to be highly effective and are widely available to all Americans. Sure, we want to go to baseball games and concerts and restaurants – and a shot in the arm certainly will help us safely engage in these activities. But returning to a state of normalcy also means we won't be forced to say premature and painful goodbyes to people like Ivory Beck Sr.
And that should be the ultimate goal.