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fostering the humanistic practice of medicine publishing personal accounts of illness and healing encouraging health care advocacy

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January 2021

Q&A: The COVID-19 Vaccine

“How are you surviving the COVID-19 pandemic?”

Lately, this is my new opening question with patients who come for a routine office visit. As a cardiologist in a community-hospital setting, I see mostly elderly patients.

When I ask my patients this question as they sit on the exam table wearing their brightly colored masks, they usually answer, “I don’t go out much. When I do, I wear a mask and practice social distancing.”

In recent weeks, they’ve begun asking me questions–about the COVID-19 vaccine. Having just received the vaccine myself, I can describe the experience firsthand.

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My First Psychiatry Patient

When I met my first psychiatry patient, Samuel, he greeted me with a broad, mischievous grin and an elbow bump (COVID being at large). I started off my patient interview by asking him some general questions about his personal details, his main complaint, and his medical history.

He believed that he was the god of the moon. Besides holding this grandiose delusion, he had hardly slept for several days and felt an irresistible urge to chop as much wood as possible. This so-called manic episode caused his family to admit him to the psychiatric hospital. He mentioned often that he felt overwhelmed by pressure and judgment from his family and smoked cannabis to cope with stressors in his life. I imagined that Samuel and many other psychiatric patients over the ages must have felt that way, when their illnesses set in and they were forced to face the double-edged sword of stigma and psychosis.

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Hope for Mastery Again

Breaking my vow that I would not check my work email during my desperately needed vacation, I peeked at my phone. Sometimes, anxiety about the unknown is worse than reality. Scanning my messages, one subject line made me pause: “Your COVID Vaccination Date.” I clicked and read further. I was assigned a day, time, and place to receive the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine. Oddly, I felt nothing. No excitement, trepidation, relief, sense of history-in-the-making. Nothing.

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Waiting for the Answer

It’s tricky—the balance between deserving, needing, and entitled. Who gets the vaccine first? Who gets it last? What part of the decision is privilege. What part experimental.

I am a noncompromised age-qualifying mental health counselor who has worked remotely, from the confines of my home. I am not a high-risk-by-exposure candidate, unless I want to be. I have remained masked and distant throughout the pandemic. What are my response and responsibility to having an invitation to be at the front of the line?

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The Shot

Excitement. A little bit of fear. Some confidence, too. But most of all, fellowship.

Around me, spaced a careful six feet apart, are tables along with other scrub-clad men and women who work in the hospital, each of us perched on the edge of our seats, listening to a masked nurse explaining vaccination procedure. 

There is no doubt this is a momentous occasion, an opportunity for protection against an unruly pandemic. But it is also a reminder how many of us have been facing down this demon, gliding silently past one another, expressions unreadable as we carry on about our work. We are doctors and nurses and scrub techs and lab techs and cleaners and food service, and we are all, every day, in this fight together. Why is that so easy to forget?

When I chose medicine, I believed I had picked an uncontroversial way to help people. I did not anticipate the waves of science deniers, the people who wanted nothing to do with facts, or the misinformation campaigns that would sweep across social media. (What was social media?) Those voices can be loud, the arguments draining. Some days I forget how many of us are still here,

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The Honorable Choice

I developed my fear of needles as a kindergartener in the early 1950s. With my classmates, I waited in a slow-moving line to receive the Salk polio vaccine. When I later complained to my parents about a sore arm, they commiserated—but also assured me that the soreness would pass, while polio would be forever. I thus learned that vaccines are vital to my well-being.

That being said, the COVID-19 vaccine still causes me some anxiety. The speed with which it was developed—and the lack of knowledge about its long-term effects—worries me. Yet as I sit in my living room, the same setting in which I have sat for the past ten months of isolation, I realize that I have limited choices: to be vaccinated and, hopefully, become immune to COVID, or not to be vaccinated and, sadly, continue to live a life of isolation and vulnerability.

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An Editor’s Invitation: The Vaccine

Dear Pulse readers,
A New Year is upon us. I hope that it finds you well so far.
It’s an old saw in medicine: Never be the first doctor to prescribe a new medication–nor the last.
It’s advice that I take to heart. I generally wait a few years before offering the latest, greatest pill to my patients. On more than one occasion that strategy has saved me the guilt and shame of violating the most sacred medical directive: First, do no harm.

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