I have written before about the horrors of the pandemic, from my perspective as a physician and from our viewpoint in a typical emergency department in America: stories of death, sickness, suffering, and isolation. The corporate indifference and the government bungling. The physical and psychological damage to the survivors, the families, and the staff. The strength of the patients and their families in the face of uncertainty, the unknown, and fear. The courage of the staff, especially the unsung ancillary staff like the cleaning crews who have to sterilize the rooms after they’ve been contaminated, day after day, without getting the “hero” label most of us providers get pinned with like some kind of medal. (Thank God for them. The people who face this every day without the accolades: Those workers are my heroes. The grocery clerks, the countless cashiers, the teachers, the people who have to face the public without acclaim, and without personal protective equipment [PPE].)
Most of us, by now, have not only heard or read all sorts of heartbreaking stories, we have experienced some of them personally. This crisis has taken so much from all of us: family and friends we cannot see or touch in person, gatherings we cannot have, children who cannot interact normally like children. My wife and I even overheard our tiny daughter playing with stuffed animals, telling them, “No, no … you have to stay apart … you can’t touch!”
We have all reached beyond the limits of endurance and are running on fumes. We all, as a community, as a people, as human beings, now need recharging, spiritually. And so I wanted to share this incredible experience with you in the hope that it might help recharge your spiritual batteries as much as it did mine.
I wrote in my last story about how the nation is finally going on the offensive against this plague. The vaccines are finally arriving and giving us hope, letting us take the fight to this tiny, virulent enemy. When a friend of mine contacted me and asked if my wife (a critical care RN) and I would help organize volunteers to give vaccine injections for the first drive-thru site in our county, I was thrilled. Anything I could do to combat this disease, I was willing to do. Sign us up!
My wife was even more excited. She immediately started rounding up her nursing colleagues to join the pop-up clinic. You would think that after all of us had been working brutal hours, the last thing we would want to do would be to work more hours, unpaid, in yet another venue that offered long hours on our feet with infectious exposure to high volumes of people at a high rate of speed in a high pressure environment. Not so. Like us, our friends and coworkers had seen the high price this has inflicted on our families, our community, our nation, and ourselves. We would walk on hot coals to get to the far side of this.
We got everyone lined up to volunteer and then we all did vaccine training through the state health department. We had to pass a test on HIPAA (which we can all do asleep and blindfolded) and get up to speed on vaccine protocols. We learned how the clinic would function, what the standing orders are for allergic or anaphylactic reactions to the vaccine, and, of course, how to navigate the reams of paperwork necessary for the various entities involved, from the health department to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Finally, the day arrived that we got to actually open the clinic and start putting shots in arms.
The state and local health departments were there to help with the administrative functions. The emergency management agencies were there to attend to logistics, such as the drive-thru tents, tables and chairs, PPE, and, thank heaven, the heaters—the vaccine site was outdoors and it was flipping cold. The National Guard provided traffic control and crowd management while the police department, sheriff’s deputies, and ambulances were there for emergencies and in case patients had an adverse reaction.
We had a computer glitch to start the day, which took about 45 minutes to resolve, so we started behind time by a good bit. The line of cars already stretched out around the mall and down the street.
We had a workflow: Teams of RNs would go from car to car, screening patients and filling our their paperwork. By the time they arrived at a tent, we would be able to just look over their papers, give them a vaccination, then hand them their vaccine card. We’d give them their post-shot instructions and the National Guard would direct them out to the parking lot for their 15-minute post-shot monitoring.
Finally, it was showtime. My wife and I worked one lane of a tent and our first cars rolled in. We apologized for the long wait, but to our surprise the patients were not only not upset, they were thrilled to be finally getting their shots. Despite the delay, people thanked us profusely for being there and giving back to the community. We really hadn’t expected that.
As the cars passed us, it became more and more kind of surreal … in a good way. In a wonderful way.
We had become so used to the crushing avalanche of patients over the last year, people who were suffering, sick and dying, alone and hurting. This was the total antithesis of that.
We vaccinated hundreds, and we were inundated with love and gratitude. Everyone was so incredibly happy to get their shots. In my last story I talked about my wife crying when I got my vaccine, and then my tears when she got hers. Working a vaccine clinic was like that, but to the 10th power.
We were literally washed in tears of happiness. Adult children who brought their elderly parents to be vaccinated began crying when we jabbed their arms.
A mother and her late-teens child with cystic fibrosis both bawled their eyes out.
At one point, a car pulled up and the window rolled down. I was face to face with, according to her paperwork, a … 22-year-old? She was a beautiful young woman who appeared to be the picture of health. “Why is she here? Who let her in?” I thought in irritation. Then I looked up from the papers; she was wearing a huge smile, but there were tears pouring down her face.
“I have leukemia,” she burst out, “and I have been waiting so long. I tried and tried, but I couldn’t get an appointment.” Then she broke down. Hell, so did I. I could barely see to give her the injection. She got her shot and we made sure she had her return appointment. She, like so many others, thanked us over and over.
Another patient, a tiny elderly woman in her 90s, told us we were “angels from heaven.” I am assuredly not an angel, but that woman sure made me feel like I was.
That day we injected the elderly, the infirm, the cancer patients, the people with their bodies twisted with cerebral palsy and other horrible wasting diseases. They all thanked us and told us how much we meant to our community.
All the negative, pent-up feelings of the pandemic—the anger from seeing the fools in stores without masks; the big, heedless gatherings of people; the frustration; the depression; the angst and the disgust—it all eased away in a flood of emotions radiating from our patients.
Then it hit me: We weren’t just giving injections of a vaccine. We were giving injections of hope.
Hope for an end to fear, loneliness, and sickness. Hope for a return to normal life.
All day, I stood on aching feet with a soaring heart. Even better, I was standing with my soulmate sharing an incredible, uplifting experience. All day long my wife and I laughed, joked, and cried as we dispensed hundreds of doses of love and hope. And in return, our patients lifted us up on wings like eagles.
Keep the faith, brothers and sisters. Spirituality, kindness, love, and hope still exist in this bad old world. You just have to go find them.
As for my wife and me? Until this pandemic ends, that beautiful redheaded Scottish nurse and I will be delivering shots of hope every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday in a tent in a mall parking lot.
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