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I recall once being asked, as part of a physical exam, “Have you been immunized?” The question wasn’t specific with regard to which immunizations, so my response was that I wasn’t positive. I had done much international travel while growing up, and had received multiple vaccinations at various times, but I wasn’t sure all the recommended vaccinations were up to date at that time.
I am generally a pretty “chill” person who respects personal choice and freedom. As an intensive care physician during a global pandemic, I have witnessed suffering and death on a level that I could not have imagined. When the COVID vaccine was approved (albeit Emergency Use Authorization), in late 2020, we rushed in droves to get the “the jab.” I was flabbergasted and appalled by the politicization of vaccines.
I will recount an encounter with a patient and his spouse that hurt me more than I care to admit.
I had the privilege of working as a scribe in oncology last year. For several months, we had to severely cut back who was able to come into our clinic. Our patients receiving chemotherapy still came in person, but family members were no longer able to accompany them, robbing them of that crucial emotional support. Many of our other follow-up visits were switched to telehealth: a safer, but not ideal alternative.
Then, we began to have hope again. The vaccines received FDA Emergency Use Authorization.
I retired after forty-three years as an Intensive Care Nurse. I worked at the onset of the AIDS epidemic until AIDS became a treatable, chronic disease. I cared for early cases of MRSA and drug-resistant TB. Working in Dallas, I prepared for a possible Ebola crisis. Imagine my reaction, when my thirty-nine year old son revealed he was an anti-vaxxer.
My work as a physician is a core part of my identity. I work to heal others: not just their bodies, but their spirits and souls. I strive to provide quality health care to the underserved, for I believe health care is a right, not a privilege. I try to leverage health care to empower the disenfranchised through education about their bodies and wellness.
I have a health condition that puts me at risk for complications from COVID, so when the vaccine came out I was eager to be vaccinated as soon as possible. My immediate family was supportive and on the same page. However, one family member, my aunt, remains unvaccinated.
The current COVID surge has been the hardest of all. Like many of my colleagues, I was physically and emotionally spent before it even began. But more than the exhaustion, what’s made it so difficult for me is that it didn’t have to happen. We have a safe and effective vaccine that’s widely available. While vaccinated individuals may still be infected, they make up a small number of people requiring hospitalization and ICU care. In advocating for vaccination, it feels like healthcare workers have become public enemies.
The man sits comfortably on three liters of nasal canula as I peer into his ED room.
He laughs as I enter with a mask, a face shield, a gown and gloves: all standard protocol for “PUIs,” patients under investigation for COVID. He has good reason to laugh. I look ridiculous.
“You scared of me ol’ boy?” he states in the familiar rural twang of our region.
“Shoot, I ain’t scared. I believe I could whoop you without wrinkling my dress here!”
We both laugh. He can hear I grew up close by.