When news of the vaccine approvals started floating last year, I was skeptical. I felt like this virus was something that was unknown and possibly evolving, and there was an obvious rush to get a vaccine developed to combat it. While other areas of research were focusing on how to get the pandemic under control and treat the illness more effectively, there was a parallel effort to come up with the vaccine that would, at the very least, minimize or eliminate hospitalization and death. While the cure was, by itself, quite a debacle, the vaccine to protect us from it was both a welcome and scary thought.
I will be honest and admit that my first thought was that I wasn’t too sure I would want to receive the vaccine. I was thinking about how the many years that were devoted to pharmaceutical development, testing and approval were being waived given our current situation. There’s also a paranoid side of me that goes back to the premise of the movie “I am Legend” which implies that the transformation of the infected to zombies was caused by a botched vaccine for cancer. (If my memory serves me right). Of course, that version took a lot of liberties converting the original movie “Omega Man” into a modern day post-pandemic scenario. What is heartening is that both movies end with a cure being discovered. Sadly, not without a huge casualty count in its wake.
But back to the modern day covid era where our lives in all parts of the world have been upended. Even the countries where they have successfully controlled the spread of the disease have chosen to close their borders— yet another drastic change in the normal that we all used to know.
New York started its vaccine rollout by prioritizing the elderly and front line workers. News of long lines and difficulty securing an appointment made me pessimistic about getting vaccinated. Being just weeks shy of 55 when the vaccinations began, I told myself that I’d be lucky to get vaccinated by the fall. Not that I was all excited about the prospect of being vaccinated, but I know any plans to travel home (Manila) would hinge on my getting past this hurdle.
By mid-February, a glimmer of hope came when it was announced that certain co-morbidities would qualify, even without meeting the age requirement. This was set to take effect on February 15. I had made plans to request for a letter certifying my asthma when I logged on to the patient portal of Columbia Doctors, and found the letter already in my inbox. The hospital had sent it on the 13th, in anticipation of me qualifying for vaccination. I must say I was impressed that they had made good on their promise to let their patients know when we qualify. My general practitioner, hematologist, orthopedist, nephrologist and dermatologist are all in their network — including my radiology center— so I must say I’m a happy patient.
But that was just the start. There was the debacle of finding an actual site that had an available appointment. The pharmacies were only taking on the elderly and the frontline workers. Even the vaccination center of Columbia Doctors at the Armory were focusing on the same and eventually on certain zip codes. I heard horror stories of people waiting for hours in the mass vaccination sites after the initial struggle to land a slot. I told myself that maybe I’m not meant to get it. It seemed that everywhere I went, there were no appointments available.
Until a friend sent me a link to another avenue of vaccinations in New York, and I immediately got an appointment when I registered. The appointments for March and April were gone in 48 hours.
My reluctance and misgivings about being vaccinated was greatly dissipated by the fact that everything seemed to have fallen into place with little effort. It literally landed on my lap. I felt like the ease with which I secured a vaccination appointment was a gift I should not waste, given all the hurdles others were facing to secure their own.
On the appointed date, I showed up, and fell in line behind the one person ahead of me outside the entrance of the hospital. I had my paperwork ready – proper identification, the appointment email, and my letter certifying my comorbidity. I chose Lenox Hill Hospital downtown as my vaccination site. Upon arrival, I was asked to check in through my phone with a standard questionnaire common to covid screening and tracing. By the time I was done checking in, I was in line for the elevator taking me to the vaccination floor. I fell in line for actual registration with the same 5 people who went up on the elevator with me, giving my name, my ID, and my proof of residency since I didn’t have a state-issued ID. (Thank you, Spectrum, for the utility bill.) I also presented them with the letter certifying my qualification. All done in 10 minutes. I was then directed to the vaccination line, where I was ushered to the nurse who would administer my shot.
Another series of questions – and she entered my information, and finally, the jab. I was directed to another table to set my next appointment for the second shot within the approved window, and my appointment card was duly noted. Because of my abnormal bleeding — I am a “bleeder”, by medical standards — I was made to sit in the waiting area for observation for 30 minutes instead of the usual 15. All went well. Finally, one last check out in the system, a sticker (or two) to take home, and I was on my way.
I walked out of the building feeling just fine. As I turned the corner and crossed to the other side, I saw this huge sign on the front of the hospital proudly declaring “Heroes work here.” Indeed.
I only felt a tenderness in the arm that took the injection and a general sense of fatigue. I’m not too sure if the latter was caused by the medication, or if it was because I had walked my 10,000 steps and then some that same afternoon around the hospital. I had half jogged and walked on my way to Lenox Hill because I had been “stalled” by what was supposed to be a quick trip to Strand’s many blocks away but in the same area. (So much for a quick stop, which is not nearly that easy when you walk into that bookstore. I can literally spend the day there..)
The following day, I was fine. No side effects, and the tenderness, although still present, was barely noticeably except when I touched my arm. I felt okay. I was okay. Truth be told, I was relieved. The anxiety building up against the idea of being vaccinated, and then the subsequent dilemma of not being able to find an appointment and then getting that link, and then finally leaving the hospital knowing I had my first vaccination running through my veins was like a load off my back. I felt like I had more than just a card up my sleeve — that for the first time, beyond my masks and all the safety protocols that we now observed on a daily basis, I was actually armed with a shield. I just need the second shot — the sword — to actually have a real fighting chance.
The 21 days to my next appointment couldn’t have come sooner. The line was just a little longer (around 12 people deep) because second shot recipients were now overlapping with people who were getting their first shot. A staff member was now meeting people who were just joining the line to check their names off a masterlist. No more phone check in this time, we were ushered up again in groups of 5-6. Same deal with the registration/identification, with our names being checked against a masterlist and our information being verified with our appointment and vaccination cards. Then we fell in line for the actual vaccination.
I was fortunate enough to have landed a kababayan (fellow Filipino) nurse who assisted me so ably. We did the run through of the questions, and even chatted about his own experience with the vaccination. As an ER nurse, he told me that he still saw a lot of people being brought in for Covid, and that it was alarming that more younger people between the ages of 20-40 were being admitted. He, too, felt relieved, when he was able to get vaccinated. Like my previous nurse, he made me feel at ease and even gamely posed for a selfie which I wanted to put on my feed to encourage my other friends to get vaccinated.
It’s ironic how my initial sense of anxiety over the thought of being adversely affected by the vaccine turned into anxiety about not getting it. It’s like running full circle on this rollercoaster ride over Covid 19 which has taken over our lives in sweeping strokes. A year after everything ground to a halt and “normal” as we knew it completely disappeared, there is still much to be done to help us go back to a sense of what we had before.
I have been fortunate to not have suffered any adverse side effects beyond the pain in my arm. I am now vaccinated, but I still wear my mask wherever I am in contact with others. I still carry and use a pocket hand sanitizer. I wash my hands when I get home or get near a sink after touching door handles and other surfaces that have been touched by others. I have even returned to work, even if only partly.
As the pandemic continues to rage in all corners of the world and we are racing to keep in step with its onslaught, the vaccine has provided a much needed crutch to keep us steady as we try to outrace this killer. I am far from being optimistic about a return to normal any time soon. But I am hoping that the effort to vaccinate as many as possible will stop us from sliding into rising casualty figures. We aren’t quite there yet, but there is a better chance for us to get there.
I have friends who still refuse to be vaccinated. I respect their stand. But I try to goad as many as I can to get themselves innoculated against the covid virus before it gets to them. I have been fortunate enough to not have had anyone close enough to me, succumb to the ravages of the virus. My friends who have battled it have won— and successfully recovered. Still, we can’t let our guard down.
It is my hope that more people will see the wisdom in being vaccinated at the soonest opportunity. Many people envy us for the availability of choice here— whereas other countries have to contend with making do with less options for vaccines to take, and worse yet, scarcity of resources to get themselves the jab.
Let us not let that precious resource go to waste because of a fear magnified by misinformation and misplaced doubt. Despite its rushed approval, the vaccines that have been approved for distribution are based on existing studies and science. There will be casualties of side effects, true. But even the simplest of medication that we take everyday have the same dangers on any given day. To me, the most relevant point we must consider is would we rather risk getting sick with Covid, rather than take the chance on the vaccine that will help us fight it off.
I think about the millions of people still running scared in the shadow of possible contamination, and the millions of others being ravaged by the disease. It seems to be such arrogance to shirk away from the one things others are not as lucky to have access to. As of mid-May, vaccination numbers are beginning to slide and there is news of people missing their much needed second shot.
I am done with mine. My 17 year old is about to get his second shot. And yet even while I’m fully vaccinated, I’m not putting my masks away, nor letting go of the now ingrained habit of washing my hands and keeping the sanitizer close at hand. I know things are far from returning to normal. The news that finds its way to us from around the globe and even around us here continue to remind us of this. Many parts of the Philippines are on lockdown. That, in itself, is a stark reminder of how the pandemic is far from over. It hits so close to home for me.
This post has been churning in my head for over two months now. It started when my first vaccination was approaching.. and now I am almost a month into being fully vaccinated.
And the journey continues.