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An Unexpected Reaction from a COVID-19 Vaccine

Observations and unexpected emotions bubbling up from a Covid-19 vaccination site.

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Photo by Dave G Kugler (@Davegkugler)
Photo by Dave G Kugler (@Davegkugler)

I wonder if Edward Jenner fully realized the emotional and societal weight that modern vaccines would hold more than 200 years after the first dose was administered. As he tested and gave those first vaccines in 1796 to defeat Smallpox, I wonder if he, like any brave scientist, was answering the beleaguered call to find a way to stop people from dying. Hunched over a lab bench, trying to determine why certain compounds had different reactions, would he think about how he was offering more than just a fix to a medical problem? 

I wonder if he understood how much hope one particular vaccine would give a world in need of protection against a pandemic. How I would be so very grateful to get my first shot of one of the three FDA-approved Covid-19 vaccines.

Edward’s name popped in my mind as I walked to the entrance of Seattle’s mass vaccination site at Lumen Field, impatiently cautious with a side of giddiness. After all, the roll-out of vaccines had been strictly monitored and reserved for frontline workers and the elderly. It was very unclear when I’d get my turn as a healthy woman who happens to have high blood pressure that spikes often (thanks, pregnancy) and decades of an asthma diagnosis that has thickened my lungs (thanks, genetics). Guidelines on which phase you were to receive your dose were murky at best, with stories of people who cut the line or traveled a few states over to sneak in. Thanks to Governor Jay Inslee and his team adjusting the eligibility requirements, I was finally able to register. 

I got the text notification from King County last week saying that I was eligible and there were doses available. I did a double take, thinking it was an early, gross April Fool’s joke — inappropriate  in the middle of a global health crisis. We’ve been waiting so long for this; there was no way that I was next in line. Certainly it’s a mistake, I thought. My parents and in-laws were vaccinated, my friends who have been battling on the frontlines as doctors and nurses received theirs. Those made sense, but it couldn’t be my turn. After a year of uncertainty and grief, there seemed to be a glimmer of hope.

I made my appointment, convinced that they might turn me around at the door. 

I didn’t tell many people that I had my golden time slot ticket. FOMO is real, and I also didn’t want to jinx it if I was somehow not able to get a shot. Hope is a dangerous thing to waste.

So, on the day that more than 2 million people became eligible for the vaccine in Washington State, I parked my car at the top floor of the event center parking lot and sprinted to the entrance. I flew down the stairs and around the corner, falling into a socially-distant, yet exuberant, line of newfound friends who were just as happy to get poked in the arm as I was. 

The line was about the length of the football stadium. A woman dressed in full Princess Leia garb loudly took a work call on Zoom as she waited in line (we waved to her coworkers). News helicopters chopped overhead, covering the long lines that snaked around the sidewalk, punctuated by people six feet apart, dots lining the concrete. A Black woman emerged from the exit door in tears, mascara cascading down her face, as she told her 86-year-old mother that they could reunite for the first time in a year because she got her second shot. She sat on the curb as she said goodbye, head in hands with her shoulders heaving up and down as she wept. A group of bystanders asked if they could comfort her, and held her hands after using their own hand sanitizer.

I saw an elderly woman chatting with a young man who dressed in a suit and tie to mark the momentous occasion. When she asked if he was coming from work, the young man blushed and explained that he bought the suit specifically so he could interview for new jobs and end his year of unemployment. “I just thought it would bring me good luck,” he replied.

Two fathers nudged their two sons to move forward in line. One son was crying because he wanted the vaccine just like his dad, but wasn’t eligible yet. They chatted for a few minutes to calm him down, and ended up shuffling toward the door in an embrace, with the son standing on the father’s shoes as they waddled together. 

The smell of kielbasa and cheesesteak immediately drew a crowd. I saw the familiar yellow tent of Al’s Famous Sausage, a Seattle staple and gameday must-have if you’re near the stadium. “Some things never change,” I muttered with a grin as I waved hi to my old friend Al. And by “old friend,” I mean the one constant shingle up at every sporting event, South Lake Union food truck stop, Bumbershoot and other iconic festivals that I’ve missed so much this year. Seeing Al was a sense of normalcy returning. He made it through the economic downturn. There was even more hope on the horizon. 

As we shuttled toward the initial checkpoint, a woman and man in front of me partook in the ritual “go, no you go” dance to file in line. Yet, they never looked each other in the eye. I wonder if our new pandemic behaviors will fade off over time. Will we be able to stand close to each other again? Will we look each other in the eye even if we’re wearing a mask, seeing our common humanity? Will we have to say excuse me as we accidentally brush a stranger’s arm, moving through a crowded hallway? Or will we pretend we still have a bubble in between each of us when the pandemic is over?

A few of those questions were answered as we got inside and were directed to where our vaccines were administered. I got table four, with Robyn sitting on one side doing information intake, and ICU nurse Lari sitting next to an empty chair in full PPE. I hadn’t seen someone in full PPE unless it was on the news, and it always happened in death toll counts or Covid-19 spikes. I was surprised how timidly I walked up to sit down, the empty chair less than a foot away from Lari. I truly didn’t know how to act – these were the first people outside of my immediate family and our daycare friends that I’ve physically been this close to in the past year. 

Lari smiled as I said hello – I could tell because her green eyes lit up behind her face shield. Robyn took my name and birthdate, instructing me to leave my drivers licensed in the rectangular-shaped tape marks on the table. Her brown eyes locked with mine, and I took a deep breath. “Do you have any questions?” Robyn asked. ”No,” I replied. “Just grateful and suddenly overwhelmed to be here.”

And then the dam broke.

I wept. I thought about my friend Keri who is a Covid long-hauler. How she’ll deal with this for her entire life, through no fault of her own.  I thought about the communities my friend is serving in the public health system, providing them with relief through the Johnson & Johnson shot. I thought about my parents, who can breathe a little easier knowing that their daughter is protected now. 

I reminisced back to the pandemic haircuts I gave my son, who sprouted before my eyes in quarantine. The high-energy kid who bounced between interrupting his parents’ Zoom work meetings and too much screen time. The moments of connection, stillness. The times when I felt like I was failing and thriving as a mom, all wrapped up into one sweet hug or explosive tantrum, depending on the day.

I thought about the people we’ve lost this past year. My grandmother, whose blue eyes would have welled up with tears, knowing we’re ok. We moved her into assisted living right before lockdown. She never left, and we weren’t able to say goodbye.  In total, only a handful of my family members contacted Covid-19. I know we were lucky. I looked around and saw hundreds of people with similar stories. Stories of sisters who didn’t make it or parents who lost their jobs. Stories of mothers who are overseeing zoom schooling and grandparents who can’t touch their loved ones. Stories of stark loss, deep loneliness, and exacting overwhelm that simply need a release.

“Do people generally cry?” I asked softly, wiping away tears with my shirt. 

Lari reached out her hand and touched my knee. “People cry getting their shot all of the time. And you know what? I cry with them. It’s called being human,” she replied.

She recounted stories of vaccinating her fellow ICU nurses and doctors who have been working nonstop for the past 13 months, in the battle zone. They have the scars to prove it, and yet, their compassion tends to buff out the edges of a tragedy, leaving the one thing that remains: hope.  Compassion and hope are the driving factor of rebuilding our community. And it all started with a very long vaccine line. 

My shoulders relaxed, some of the year’s tension flowing down my back. Lari asked me if I was ok. “Is this what hope and slight relief looks like?” I asked her. 

“Yes,” she replied. “This is what hope looks like.”

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