On Being a Health Care Worker Near the Front of the Line for the COVID Vaccine

I got the email on Monday, Dec 21, four days before Christmas. Our health system had gotten its first shipment of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine, the first of two vaccines recently granted an Emergency Use Authorization by the US Food and Drug Administration a few days before that. We had been told to watch our email for our invitation to sign up for an appointment time. While I knew that my colleagues who worked in ERs and ICUs — the FRONT front lines — were quite appropriately at the very top of the list, as a doctor who sees patients in both outpatient and inpatient settings and is over 65 years old, I also knew that I was not far behind.

So while I was waiting for my notification, I did what any person in my position would do. I went a little bananas:

· I refreshed my email inbox obsessively, like an actor on Oscar-nomination morning checking to see if the Academy was finally going to do right by me this year.

· I saw colleagues in other cities and in other states on social media sharing a thumbs up photo of themselves getting their vaccine, giving them Likes and Loves and Congrats! while nurturing my own little spark of Vaccine Envy.

· I woke up a lot in the middle of the night worried that, after all these months of not getting sick, was I going to miss my chance by missing the email or worse finally get sick and miss out on this new protection when I was THISCLOSE.

When I did get the email notification, I responded instantly, pouncing on the appointment grid to get a vaccine scheduled for the next afternoon at 5:20 PM. I got out of clinic that day a few minutes early and got to the hospital where I’d get my vaccine at 4:45 PM. I checked in, waited, checked in again when called back, and sat down. I asked the pharmacy tech who would be giving me the shot if he would mind if I included him in a photo that I’d share on social media. The nurse who did the second check-in overheard, laughed, and said, “Him? Are you kidding?” His eyes smiled above his mask, and he said, “I’d be happy to.”

Afterwards, I sat in the post-vaccine waiting area to make sure I didn’t have a severe allergic reaction. I felt like I was finally able to exhale after nine long months. I felt deeply grateful. I felt tears well up in my eyes. And yes, I felt a little guilty. Weren’t there people who needed this more than me?

I also realize that this is the way I’m built, the way most people in health care are built. Sure, we may also have gone into health care because we want a stable profession, one where we can always find work and a paycheck. We may enjoy the intellectual stimulation of problem-solving when it comes to the human body and psyche and soul. We may crave the societal acclaim and respect that often comes with having letters like MD, DO, RN, PA, PharmD, PhD, PNP, SW, LCSW, and so many others behind our names.

But above all, we are here to help. We rush toward illness and danger rather than running away, and as much as I do not want to get sick with COVID, there’s this other thing, this health care worker thing, that has been troubling me for nine months since the start of the pandemic: What if I become infected with COVID without symptoms and pass it on to my loved ones or to my patients? It’s not just doctors who take the Hippocratic “First, do no harm” Oath seriously. It’s all of us: nurses, PAs, NPs, phlebotomists, social workers, housekeeping, dietary, pharmacists, everyone who comes in contact with patients. That is a stress we have all been living with while getting up and going to work anyway.

So this, most deeply, is why I am glad that health care workers are getting immunized first. For nine months now, you have asked us to go to war with weapons and defenses that were barely adequate and sometimes non-existent. Many of us have gotten sick — and some have died — in this service. At long last, this vaccine gives us a shield so that we can continue to fight this enemy and continue to serve you, and it gives us a sword to destroy this nemesis with our own immune systems so that we do not pass it on to anyone else.

And while I know for a fact that this vaccine has been tested as thoroughly and painstakingly as any vaccine in history and I am thrilled to be receiving it, I also know that every technology, whether microwave ovens, automobiles, or iPhones, may have some strange and rare glitch that does not show up during the exhaustive testing period. Here again, health care workers are putting our bodies on the line because we know what to look for and how to report problems if they happen. We do this because we want to do everything possible to wipe COVID-19 off the face of the earth.

And because there is still so much that we still don’t know, even those of us who have had the vaccine will continue to wear our masks and keep our physical distance and sanitize our hands and wear all the appropriate PPE until we have more data. Because there is always more to discover.

So I have gotten over my guilt, and that is why I and so many health care workers post pictures on social media of us wearing our masks, rolling up our sleeves, giving a big thumbs up, and getting our immunizations. We want you to know that we have faith, based in hard science, that this vaccine is going to save lives, that we are putting our own bodies on the line to prove it, and that we are in this for the long haul, to keep everyone safe, healthy, and alive.

Pediatrician, Educator, Singer, Writer, Advocate, Actor, Improviser. Views are my own, not those of any institution where I’m employed.

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