It was the best work holiday party ever!
As I entered the room I could feel the energy. There were happy voices, everyone laughing and chatting. The Christmas music was pumping and, in the corner, sat a man in a red poinsettia blazer. Everyone’s eyes were smiling and the chatter was just a bit louder than usual. It felt like a work holiday cocktail party but, this time, the shots we all looked forward to were, quite literally, shots of a COVID19 vaccine. The nurses in scrubs and PPE were injecting nurses, doctors, home health aides and other frontline workers with syringes full of magic. I smiled behind my mask. This might be the best holiday party I attend this year. In fact, it might be the most important one I ever attend.
I am a part of history and the beginning of the end of a very sad year on Earth.
The nurse was getting my syringe ready while another nurse took my phone and began taking pictures. “I got mine this morning,” said the nurse doing mine. She had a skip in her step and despite the mask and the face shield it was obvious she was smiling, her eyes lighting up with the knowledge that she was playing an essential part in ending this pandemic. So was I. Just by choosing to attend, by putting out my shoulder and feeling a little poke in the arm, I am a part of history and the beginning of the end of a very sad year on Earth.
The worst post-vaccine symptom I felt was the soreness in my arm for a few days. But, it was a good sore.
The man in the poinsettia blazer was among those assigned to hand out official COVID19 vaccination record cards and explain VSafe, the voluntary tracking app that the CDC is using to monitor for any vaccine side effects. Once given the QR code to download the app, I opted in. I know friends, neighbors, and loved ones who worry about taking a new vaccine. I want to be sure I’m a part of the process of ensuring we are all safe and reassuring anyone who thinks maybe we’d be better off just living with COVID19. I’m in the first million to get the vaccine and I’ll make sure the next million know even more about why taking the vaccine is the right choice for all of us. Every day since taking it, I’ve filled out my texted questionnaire asking about my symptoms and their severity. But I’ve also followed friends on social media who are all over the country proudly displaying their bare shoulders being poked. It’s weird but every time I see another post of another old friend or colleague with a needle in their shoulder I feel a tiny bit of relief that they are just a little bit safer. My anesthesiologist husband got his first shot yesterday. Last night we debated, “which shot does it most feel like?”. Not as bad as the flu shot, we both agree. Definitely not as bad as a tetanus shot. Maybe about like the hepatitis shot I got in med school? In fact, this mRNA vaccine technology is a very elegant way to send the message to the immune system how to protect us. Maybe, my husband and my difficulty remembering a vaccine that was so mild is a reflection of that elegance. The worst post-vaccine symptom I felt was the soreness in my arm for a few days. But, it was a good sore.
We are just at the beginning of taking our lives back from COVID19 and our masks still need to stay on and our guard still needs to stay up.
Over the past few days, every time I’ve rubbed my arm to see if it was still sore it has reminded me of the magic in there. I got the Pfizer vaccine (although I don’t really care all that much and would’ve taken whatever was offered first). Right there in my arm, where it felt a tiny bit sore, the mRNA entered my cells and delivered a message to make a little piece of protein that looks like a little piece of COVID19. When I felt a little tired the night after the shot, I joyfully thought, that is my immune system recognizing that little protein and saying “what are you doing here?” like it would do with a splinter in my foot.
I feel proud to be part of a tribe of healers and caretakers, and listeners that I call colleagues.
Today it has been 5 days since I got the first of two doses. My arm isn’t sore anymore, even if I push hard. The little bit of fatigue I felt that night is long gone. And all the magic in the shot I took on Friday is gone too. My body has already broken down the little bits of mRNA and cleared them, my cells are no longer making what they view as a useless protein, and my immune system is no longer attacking what might as well be a “splinter in my foot”. Instead, it is back to just quietly storing the memory of that protein. My immune system won’t let that same invader in next time and since a little piece of COVID looks like that protein, COVID won’t get into me either. I know the vaccine isn’t perfect and if rates of COVID are too high and I’m too cocky, pull off my mask, act like COVID never happened, I might be one of those few that the vaccine didn’t take and I might catch COVID. So, I don’t get to throw a wild party with all my friends, yet. We are just at the beginning of taking our lives back from COVID19 and our masks still need to stay on and our guard still needs to stay up. But, thanks to the vaccine, here we are at the beginning of the end of this terrible pandemic. What a great place to be.
2021 is days away and I feel great. I feel optimistic. I feel hopeful. I feel proud to be part of a tribe of healers and caretakers, and listeners that I call colleagues. I feel humbled by the losses, large and small, that we have all felt this year. I feel inspired by all the resilience, creativity, and humanity that 2020 showed us. I look forward to the rebuilding, reopening, and reconnecting that 2021 will bring. But most of all, I feel grateful for the magic that I held briefly in my arm.
Alice Brock-Utne, MD is a pediatrician and mother of three with a streak of geek for science.