The joy of vax: The people giving the shots are seeing hope, and it's contagious
By MAURA JUDKIS | The Washington Post | Published: February 25, 2021
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The happiest place in medicine right now is a basketball arena in New Mexico. Or maybe it's the parking lot of a baseball stadium in Los Angeles, or a Six Flags in Maryland, or a shopping mall in South Dakota.
The happiest place in medicine is anywhere there is vaccine, and the happiest people in medicine are the ones plunging it into the arms of strangers.
"It's a joy to all of us," says Akosua "Nana" Poku, a Kaiser Permanente nurse vaccinating people in Northern Virginia.
"I don't think I've ever had an experience in my career that has felt so promising and so fulfilling," says Christina O'Connell, a clinic director at the University of New Mexico.
"There's so many tears" — of joy, not sadness — "that it's almost normal at this point," says Justin Ellis, CVS pharmacist in Laveen, Ariz.
For health-care workers, the opportunity to administer the vaccine has become its own reward: Giving hope to others has given them hope, too. In some clinics, so many nurses have volunteered for vaccine duty that they can't accommodate them all.
Many of those same health-care workers spent last year sticking swabs up the noses of people who thought they might have covid-19. The work was risky. The patients were scared. There was never relief, just limbo. The arrival of The Shot has transformed the grim pop-up clinics of the pandemic into gratitude factories — reassembly lines where Americans could begin to put back together their busted psyches.
"I will never forget the face of the first person I vaccinated," says Ebram Botros, a CVS pharmacy manager in Whitehall, Ohio. It was an 80-year-old man who said that he hadn't seen his children or grandchildren since March.
Botros's pharmacy is in a diverse community outside of Columbus. As an African American who immigrated to the United States from Egypt, Botros feels a special responsibility to reassure Black patients who may be vaccine-averse from a historical legacy of medical abuse to get the shot. One 89-year-old Black woman told Botros she had never gotten a shot before in her life.
"I explained to her, 'This is very important. It's painless, and it's going to help you have your life back to normal,'" he says. Her grandson later reached out to Botros to thank him personally — and told him that the woman called all of her friends and urged them to get their shots, too.
Corie Robinson, a Kaiser nurse in Washington, D.C., has been vaccinating a younger crowd of firefighters, police officers and fellow medical professionals, as well as the elderly. She was selected to give the ceremonial first vaccines on camera at a Dec. 17 news conference.
"The lights were a little nerve-racking," she says, but "it was nice to vaccinate my friends." Now, sometimes people request her as their vaccinator because they saw her on the news.
The positivity has buoyed her spirits. "You can see their smiles through their masks," she says of her patients. One elderly gentleman sang while he got his shot. Others request pamphlets about the vaccine because they want to put them in time capsules. One man told Robinson he was making history twice — he had been among the first children in America to receive the polio vaccine.
"I say quite often, this is probably the most important thing I'll ever do in my career," says Robinson. "Sometimes it's a little overwhelming because you're like, 'Wow, I'm the keeper.' "
Patients pulling up to Lindsey Campbell's vaccine station are sometimes surprised to see that their shot will be administered by a woman in Army camo.
"I've definitely got a couple of like, 'Are you qualified to do this?' kind of questions," says Campbell, a staff sergeant with the Maryland National Guard. One man "asked me what my normal Army job is. And I said, 'Oh, no, I'm a medic.' He's like, 'Oh, I thought you were a cook.'"
Casual sexism aside, Campbell has enjoyed being a vaccinator. She loves it when veterans come through her line. The greatest honor, she says, was vaccinating a 103-year-old man who served in the South Pacific in World War II.
Though there are heaters, the toughest thing about working outdoors is maintaining dexterity in her hands.
"If I felt like my fingers were too cold, I would — I know it's a big no-no for our uniforms, but I would stick my hands in my pockets," she says.
One site where Campbell has been vaccinating people is the parking lot of Six Flags America, with roller coasters in full view of the patients. "That was the first thing that the soldiers were joking about," says Campbell. "'Do we get season passes?' 'Can we go there after work?' "
At the University of New Mexico's basketball arena, Christina O'Connell, clinic director at University of New Mexico Health, has been sinking shots — into muscle tissue. Sometimes there's entertainment for the patients: The team practices while people get vaccinated on the concourse level. Check-in attendants greet people arriving at the arena (known affectionately as "The Pit") for appointments with pompoms and cheers.
"Patients just love it," says O'Connell. "I mean, people miss coming here. This is a big deal in Albuquerque."
O'Connell recalls vaccinating a man who lost his mother to covid the night before and still showed up for his appointment, which made all the nurses cry. She also remembers a husband and wife who showed up in matching homemade vaccine T-shirts — crossed syringes and the phrase "two and done" — to get their final dose.
Once they were done, "This couple was like, 'OK, we're going to go have a margarita now,'" she says. Everybody cheered. Swish.
When Gladis Castro reports for a vaccination shift at Dodger Stadium, one of the biggest distribution sites in the country, she checks in at 6:30 a.m. and begins to fill her cart with supplies — alcohol, gauze, a sharps container, and coolers of vaccine. Then she and a small team wheel it out to their spot in the parking lot, and a long line of cars begins to wind its way toward her — their occupants' windows rolled down and sleeves rolled up.
Administering the vaccine through a car window is "a little tricky sometimes, especially when you have these tiny little old ladies," says Castro. The interactions are often cordial — she often strikes up conversation with patients about their tattoos — but necessarily brief. The goal is volume.
"I think I've done 480-something" shots in a single day, she says. "I've lost count."
When people get emotional, "you do want to be the one to comfort them. But you also have a little time crunch," says Castro. "You need to go to the next car."
When Justin Ellis, a CVS pharmacy manager in Laveen, Ariz., administers vaccines, he's the one on wheels. Ellis brings needles and vials stored in dry ice to assisted-living and nursing homes in the Phoenix area in his roving vaccination clinic.
He also brings the party.
"I crank up the music and we kind of jam," he says. "Their spirits are high. So it's very exciting for me to see 70-, 80-year-old, 90-year-old people just really living their best life."
Ellis says he has vaccinated at least nine people who are older than 100. They tell them all about their grandchildren. Sometimes, he even helps set up a FaceTime connection so the family can witness the jab.
These ersatz social events are awash in positive vibes, but they also make deprivations of the past year stark. Ellis sees the toll that isolation and loneliness has taken on the elderly residents.
"A lot of them, they haven't been outside for a while," he says.
"The emotional time is when I see a husband and a wife receive the vaccine together at the same time, and they're grandparents, and they're just so excited to see their grandchildren," says Poku, the Northern Virginia nurse. They ask her to take photos, and sometimes, to be in the photo, too. "I guess I'm making history with them."
Perhaps the only thing better than administering the vaccine to strangers, of course, would be jabbing friends and family.
Castro's parents and loved ones are still waiting for theirs. She says friends have asked her to help them jump the line, and she has to decline. "It gets a little challenging," Castro says, "having to tell your close ones, like, 'I'm sorry, like, you have to wait.' "
Sometimes, though, a government vaccination plan aligns with a higher design. When Brady Stephens was given the list of Arizona nursing homes where he would be vaccinating residents, one name stood out: Friendship Village, where his wife's grandmother, Pat, lives.
Stephens, a CVS pharmacist in Tempe, kept it a surprise until the day Pat was scheduled to receive her first dose. When he spilled the news, he wasn't sure who was more excited — Pat, or his wife.
"It was just a waterfall of different emotions" for the entire family, he says. "Mainly tears of happiness."
Vaccinating Pat clarified something Stephens already knew: Every person he vaccinates is someone else's Pat.
"All of these residents that we're interacting with have at least one loved one or friend or family member that is going to be going through those same emotions," he says. "It's very, very humbling."
Staff Sgt. Lindsey Campbell, a medic with the Maryland National Guard, administers coronavirus vaccines in the parking lot of a Six Flags amusement park.
BILL O'LEARY/THE WASHINGTON POST