Health

My Experience Getting Two Doses of
the COVID-19 Vaccine

When I say that I danced out of the Columbia University Armory in upper Manhattan last week, I don’t mean I had a feeling of joyous well-being. I mean that as I was leaving after my second COVID-19 inoculation, a little group of vaccine staff members by the exit gave me a “YAY!!! You did it!” and danced a happy dance. I danced with them.  This is not my usual behavior when I leave a medical facility.

I want everyone to feel the elation I felt when, after a year of learning about the coronavirus, and re-learning, and learning more, and after a year of semi-isolation (I live alone) without seeing friends, and after a year adopting many tedious, but necessary, new habits (masks, do I need rubber gloves for this trip?, six-feet distancing) I felt that the world tilted slightly. I now had a new feeling that this dreadful pandemic might become a past event. It seemed like a real possibility.

Since I follow the news (to a fault), I checked right away when online appointments for people in my cohort (over 65) opened up in January. After a frustratingly long time with New York city and state websites, I was finally making progress. And then there was an email from Weill-Cornell’s patient portal that appointments were available earlier uptown than downtown at the Javits Center. I signed up. Doing these things online was not particularly taxing to my limited computer skills, but it was hard to have enough patience to start over at the beginning each time the site crashed.

I have become concerned about all the people who want to get the vaccine, but for various reasons — all of which fall under the heading of “the real life of patients”—haven’t been able to make a computer connection. Among the over 65 population eligible for the vaccine, dismayingly large numbers of people in all economic, racial, and social categories are not signing up for it. Others are indicating they are skeptical of the vaccine and may not get it when it’s their turn.

I’ll return later to the computer entry problems, but I’d like to share my experiences getting the two doses of the vaccine because I’m like most people — a typical patient who has never lived through a pandemic. I want to demystify the process so people can think of it as an interesting experience.

The first minutes of going to the Columbia Armory on a cold late January morning (the upper Manhattan site for most of the Weill-Cornell New York Presbyterian Columbia network’s vaccinations) were amusing as well as, I’ll admit it, irritating. A small army of 20-year-olds in new security uniforms yelled at each person as they approached and at least three of them gave directions, while three more contradicted those directions or ordered people to go sit in a different section and to be prepared to present papers that had never been mentioned in the appointment setup. I looked upon it as typical abuse of a small amount of authority, hardly surprising. However, as soon as I could sit down with a processor at one of the intake tables, things became pleasant and never varied from that.

I had a finger-press temperature check and was shuffled onto a route marked for vaccinations. This long path winds through a basketball court and track field flanked by bleachers, so there is ample room for everyone to have an enjoyable stroll and keep socially distanced. At the end of that walk there is another group of staff with numbered paddles which they raise as a signal that they have an opening slot for someone at their bank of tables. It was lovely to note the ways the traffic staff would identify the paddle-holder to be followed. The traffic people delivered me to an unoccupied chair at a bank of tables and when the table worker was free, I answered seven questions about my health that day and any recent exposure to COVID-19. Then my morning stretch around the arena continued as I followed signs to get in lines for a first or second shot.

At the end of that walk, I stood on a small, raised ramp/bridge which is the threshold to the serious business of why we’re there. It was MUCH quieter in this section of the building. When there was an opening for a new patient (seconds later, not minutes, in my experience), I left the bridge and yet another usher took me to a partitioned area where I met privately with a nurse who administered the shot.

On my first visit, the nurse had filled out and given me an ID card indicating the first shot’s date and type of vaccine (Pfizer, Moderna, etc.) I received and set up the date and time for my next shot/appointment. During my second visit, the second shot was confirmed, and I received the ID card back, understanding that it will become a kind of ‘medical passport.’ I was asked about things in my medical history that might affect my reaction to the vaccine. Allergies are a big concern, so I verified mine — iodine, sulfa drugs, contrast dye — with descriptions of my reactions to these. (My story with iodine and soft-shell crabs always gets attention as I describe my face swelling up so much that I could barely see. This reminds everyone, me included, that these questionnaires are necessary.)

Nothing prevented me from getting the vaccine in my upper arm, and I am delighted to report that both times there was no pain or discomfort involved. There wasn’t even that “little pinch” warning that they usually give you. I took the vaccine ID card (which I will put in a safe place and I’ll take a photo of it with my smartphone, just in case) and another traffic agent directed me to a large area with folding chairs spaced six feet apart.

The nurse gave me a time when I could leave (about 15 minutes later) and I settled in. You are asked to wait to make sure you have no immediate adverse reactions. A worker with a rolling computer stand came by to make sure people have their next appointment info (for the second shot) and gave me a sticker “VACUNADO!” as well as a clock sticker indicating when I could leave. I brought a magazine with me both times, but it was more interesting to check out my fellow innoculees and my surroundings than to read. After an uneventful period, I went back over the ramp/bridge where my sticker time was checked, and I walked away, now starting to be protected from the COVID-19 virus.

As I left, I was smiling pretty big under my mask, and, I think, so were the greeters who were now farewellers as they directed me towards the exit. A little dance at the doorway and I was out on West 169th Street in Manhattan. At every step of the way, there were caretakers and guardians who accompanied some of the patients. It was comforting to watch them there, helping to navigate elderly relatives through this large and unfamiliar building. It took me less than an hour for each complete visit.

Many people have no post-vaccine reactions at all. I was not one of those people.  For both the first and second shot I had —at various times and frequencies — extreme fatigue, headache, chills, muscle and joint pain, lymph node swelling, heavy arm, and feeling queasy and unwell for a week.

The fatigue was the most unusual and I hardly ever get headaches. But at no point during these weeks was I ever alarmed or unhappy. I knew that each of these symptoms was my body registering that the vaccine was taking effect and that I was gaining more and more immunity, and that gave me a great peaceful feeling. I am usually very unhappy with illnesses that deprive me of reading time, but here I felt that taking a few naps and a Tylenol/acetaminophen tablet was my best course of “action.”

The day before my second shot there was an article in The New York Times about Frances H. Goldman, a 90-year-old Seattle resident. She was wary of taking her car on roads that hadn’t been cleared after a heavy snowfall. So she walked six miles into town to get her COVID shot. And then she walked six miles to get home. Let this woman be an inspiration to all of us.

Many people feel wary of this vaccine, to the point that they’re not making an appointment for it. Some people are uncertain or discouraged about the process of applying or just tired of the whole COVID experience and trying to get around it. If there is any way we can reach these people to reassure them, or to refer them to their community leaders who are urging them to get vaccinated and allaying their concerns, we should expend maximum efforts to do so. For the US population to be free of the COVID-19 threat, over half of the population must be vaccinated. Otherwise the virus will continue its stealthy and fatal attacks in our country and throughout the world. There are no global boundaries to COVID because it’s an airborne disease and air is everywhere.

The eligible thousands who have not made appointments via computers have been bogged down by cumbersome computer platforms and skills beyond their abilities. In addition, many states, cities, and institutions do not have a phone option in place or the possibility of a person answering in real time. However, there is a new route for help in setting up vaccine appointments. An enterprising 31-year-old NYC software engineer for Airbnb named Huge Ma noticed the dismal state of the online websites when trying to make an appointment for his mother. It took him two weeks and $50 to develop a site that was streamlined for users and easy to navigate. See TurboVax, his free website which connects with Twitter. And a growing number of other enterprising young computer users have developed similar new programs across the US.

Perhaps more of us who are fortunate enough to have received the vaccine already can join together to focus on members of our community who could use information like this. Many communities around the country are volunteering to help their neighbors get registered with vaccine appointments.

(Additional links have been added by the editor to supplement this essay)

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  • B. Elliott March 1, 2021 at 3:01 pm

    As I am about to have my first vaccine inoculation, I found this first-person account informative and reassuring, and particularly well-written. I admire your desire to share your knowledge and create a “ vaccine veterans” group among your cohorts.

    Reply
  • Patricia Yarberry-Allen March 1, 2021 at 9:20 am

    Thank you, Mary, for writing with clarity and humor about your experience receiving the COVID vaccine. I can imagine you doing a little dance of happiness and hope at the end of this process.
    Weill Cornell-New York Presbyterian Hospital has managed the vaccine roll out so well.
    Thrilled that your experience is one that other patients have described.
    Now, we need to share your post with more people who may have vaccine hesitancy, so that we can all do our part to find our “New Normal” as quickly as possible.
    Dr Pat

    Reply