“… Receiving the (Pfizer or Moderna) COVID-19 vaccine ought to be understood as an act of charity toward the other members of our community. In this way, being vaccinated safely against COVID-19 should be considered an act of love of our neighbor and part of our moral responsibility for the common good.” Statement from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops
Last Tuesday, Jeremy Wilt ’92 experienced hope for the first time since the pandemic began last March. He received his second dose of the Pfizer vaccine and this week will have his immunity from COVID-19. As a nurse practitioner with privileges in several area hospitals, he witnessed a new energy among his colleagues as he waited in line at Clark Memorial Hospital to receive his shot.
“The room was filled with people eager to get the vaccine,” Wilt said. “The moment was very magical and uplifting, and one of the most exciting times at work in over a year.”
He experienced only a few side effects from the vaccinations. After the first, his arm at the injection site felt sore for about 18 hours, and after the second, he experienced what’s being called vaccine fatigue, or extreme tiredness for about 24 hours after the injection. His renewed outlook is the best side effect, however.
Like many healthcare professionals, our alumni among them, Wilt has struggled with the uncertainty brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. In the first days of the initial spread of the virus in the United States, the rapidly changing guidance and regulations from the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization started the uncertainty, just as the healthcare workforce was trying to get a grasp on how to treat patients with the virus. There was also the fear of running out of personal protective equipment. As healthcare providers gained more control on implementing those regulations and the supply of PPE was shored up, there was still the uncertainty of who might have, spread, or catch the virus.
Wilt, his wife, and their daughter had COVID-19 in February, although at the time they had no diagnosis. Wilt took a week off work with a sore throat, loss of the sense of smell, and a day with a high fever. In April, his family was tested for antibodies, and he was able to confirm his suspicions that they had had it. Soon after, he donated convalescent plasma in an effort to help others.
For Wilt, gaining long-term immunity from the virus brings a mix of emotions as he considers life without the pall of contagion hanging over him, he said. Like many healthcare providers, he feels it is his civic duty to demonstrate the effectiveness of the vaccine and the need to protect the community. He also was eager to set an example to others. On a personal level, he looks forward to being able to gather with his extended family again, something he hasn’t done since Christmas 2019. Even more, he looks forward to no longer being viewed as a pariah.
“Just the thought of being officially immune and safe from the virus, being able to wear my uniform out in public before I go into work … and people thinking ‘He’s vaccinated’ instead of ‘He’s infected,’” Wilt said, adding that he’s had patients, strangers, friends, and family take a step back from him when he answers yes to their questions if he has worked with COVID-infected patients.
As a member of the healthcare community, Wilt is proud of the strength of human endurance the community has demonstrated, he said. He also is grateful to see hope among his colleagues after those months of uncertainty, stress, and pain from dealing with so many patients sick or dying from the disease.
“My heart hurts for everyone who lost loved ones and ways of life during these times,” he said. “I just hope the vaccination provides a light at the end of the tunnel.”
Chelsea (Cox) Dodson ’07 also sees that light. A nurse manager for Medical Surgical Services at Clark Memorial Hospital, she oversees nurses and other staff who deal with COVID-positive patients. Like Wilt, she also had a mix of emotions about receiving the vaccine. Having recently recovered from COVID-19, she was uncertain if having those antibodies would have an impact when she received the vaccine, she said.
Happily, Dodson had no adverse reactions to either dose other than minor aching in the arm in which she received the vaccine. Her reaction instead is pride — in Clark Memorial for being the first hospital in Southern Indiana to receive the vaccine and herself to be among the first to be inoculated, she said. Dodson was originally scheduled to get her vaccination on Dec. 16 but two days ahead of schedule, her department learned the initial date had been moved up. She and the director of her Med Surge unit then chose to get their vaccine that first day to “Pioneer the way for our team.”
She also wanted to provide an example to the public.
“By me taking the vaccine and protecting myself, it means I’m also protecting my family, friends, and the community,” Dodson said. “I want to show people that the vaccine is safer than having COVID.”
One of her duties in assisting in management of a 160-person department is to ensure the employees are informed about the latest research and regulations on the virus. That meant continually staying abreast of the news and medical publications to keep up with the ever-changing developments, strategies, and regulations.
“You could never truly have a break from it,” Dodson said. “It affected people’s lives constantly.”
As the healthcare community and now those age 80 and older are gaining immunity, like Wilt, she sees hope for the future.
“This is the beginning of the end of COVID,” Dodson said.
Like Dodson, Marla (Goodman) Beeler ’94 received the vaccine after having COVID in recent months. Beeler, who is the wife of President Victor Beeler ’94 and a nurse practitioner in a thoracic and vascular surgery practice, wondered if she needed the vaccine so soon after having recovered. Not knowing how long the antibodies would protect her from another infection helped her decide that for the good of her patients and her family she would get the vaccine.
“So to protect my patients, my family, and myself, I decided to get the vaccine,” Beeler said. “I really felt an obligation to protect. That’s what the vaccine does. It protects the recipient and the public from spread of COVID. In turn, that protection allows us as healthcare providers to continue caring for the sick. When we’re at home sick, the public suffers.”
Beeler also has felt the weight of the uncertainty of the virus, its spread, and its effects on individuals and the community at large. As more people receive the vaccine, she hopes that burden lessens for everyone.
“In an era when information is a smartphone away, it was really hard for society to grasp that we’re facing something the world has never seen before and doesn’t have any information to help accurately predict its course,” Beeler said. “My hope for 2021 is to have a year with less uncertainty and healthier families who can enjoy being with each other safely.”
Hannah Fontan ’12, a travel nurse now working in a Post Anesthetic Care units throughout The University of Colorado Hospital system. She has spent more than two years on assignments around the country before settling in Colorado in mid-2020. Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, her future was promising. With the higher pay rate and living stipend travel nurses receive, she was saving money for her July 2020 wedding to Evan Hutt ’12. She was assigned to UCLA Santa Monica when the pandemic began, working with post-surgery patients. Suddenly, she discovered that most surgeries are considered elective and her future looked bleak.
“This was the only time in my career I was fearful of losing my job,” she said.
Fontan and Hutt postponed their wedding until this July in an effort to protect their family and friends, and she struggled to find a new assignment. She finally received one from UCHealth and works a several facilities connected to the hospital and often treats COVID patients. For her, receiving the vaccine on Dec. 19 and Jan. 9 brought an immense feeling of gratitude, particularly that she was part of the UCHealth team and eligible to be among the first to receive her doses.
She took the vaccine not only for herself but to be part of the larger effort to end the pandemic, she said.
“I feel I’m doing my part of everyone that won’t or can’t get it (the vaccine),” she said, “for the people who have gotten sick or died, for my family, friends and community. I got it for the people I love and for myself.”
These alumni would be further reassured to know one of their fellow alumni is among those responsible for Hoosiers to receive the vaccine. Katie (Gatz) Hokanson ’05 is leading the state’s efforts to get those vaccines to the broader population. As director of trauma and injury prevention for the Indiana Department of Health and COVID-19 hospital vaccine branch manager, she works with hospitals to provide updates on the vaccine’s rollout by the federal government. She also assists with hospitals’ vaccine clinic setups and the state’s vaccine scheduling system.
Just as information and guidance developed rapidly in the early days of the pandemic, so it is with information from vaccine manufacturers and the federal government. Hokanson often finds that the plans she has developed suddenly need to be adjusted. Despite those challenges, seeing healthcare workers and now Hoosiers age 80 and above receiving vaccines brings a sense of relief and pride.
“All of us at the state Department of Health have been waiting on this moment for a long time,” Hokanson said. “To see shots in arms and smiles through masks was an overwhelming moment for me. Seeing healthcare workers achieve immunity and our older adults being eligible for vaccine gives us the energy to keep moving forward.”
She encourages anyone who is eligible to register for the vaccine and looks forward “to the day when the COVID-19 vaccine is as widely available as the flu and shingles shot,” she said. “That is when we will know the pandemic is nearing the end.”
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