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Why getting vaccinated for COVID-19 brings up big emotions for health care workers

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A child who is 4 years old gets his or her booster vaccinations prior to going to kindergarten. My experience as a pediatrician is that kids handle the trauma of getting shots consistent with their temperaments.

My daughter wailed and asked for a wheelchair to leave the appointment. My son calmly said with tears in his eyes, “you shouldn’t have let her do that to me.” And my other son stomped out angrily and screamed “I didn’t like that!”

All kids leave with band-aids on their thighs, a symbol of the trauma they’ve been through and, from my perspective, the protection it provides them. Sometimes they leave in their parents’ arms, and sometimes they walk out, but they always show me their band-aids. Often, they leave their band-aids on for days, proof of what they’ve been through.

This week I got my first COVID vaccine. As they called my group, I made my way to the entrance, surrounded by hospital employees who have been working, blood, sweat, and tears through this pandemic. As I rounded the corner, they cheered and clapped. They wore holiday hats, had celebratory balloons, and Johnny Mathis was belting out “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year” from a speaker nearby.

I did not expect to tear up as I walked in to get my vaccine, but cry I did. I got the shot, got my neon yellow band-aid, signed my record, and sat to wait out my observation time to make sure I didn’t have a reaction. There I sat with more tears, trying to understand why I was crying, looking around to see if I was the only one crying.

When you work in the medical field, your training prepares you for emergencies. You have to stay calm when everything is falling apart. You have to compartmentalize your feelings. You go from one hurting person to the next, and if you stop to grieve every situation, you won’t make it through your day’s work, so you learn to put your emotions aside and help the next patient.

Dealing with that pressure for one shift is hard. Dealing with it for 10 months can break you. We have seen doctors beg and plead for people to take the pandemic seriously, as the hospital beds fill up and there is no end in sight. We have seen nurses who can’t put their own emotions aside anymore, who break down after caring for dying patient after dying patient.

They have not only been responsible for medical care, but have also been a representative for the patient’s family, who cannot be at their dying loved one’s bedside. The pressure they are under, especially in the ICUs and emergency centers, is unfathomable.

One of my colleagues also cried after her COVID shot. What she said was: “There is a weight that immediately lifts. It feels exciting and cutting edge. I realized in that moment how much stress we’ve all been enduring.”

So I left with my neon yellow band-aid on my arm, with thousands of colleagues from my home hospital with neon band-aids on their arms. The next day, though, like a 4-year-old, I didn’t want to take the band-aid off. Like a 4-year-old, my band-aid represented what we’ve been through, relief to be vaccinated, and also hope that this pandemic can come to an end.

In the spring, my husband and I were listening to Dr. Fauci speak. We became emotional, because even with all the division and hatred and misinformation in the world, listening to a physician like Dr. Fauci reminded us that there really are incredibly smart people in the world who work to do the right thing.

So my tears were tears of grief for the hundreds of thousands of people who have lost their lives to COVID-19 in our country. And my band-aid and tears came with a deep gratitude for the goodness that still exists out there. Tears of gratitude for the employees at my home hospital who cheered when we walked in, marking what we all hope is the beginning of the end of this pandemic.

Tears of gratitude for the brilliant scientists who were able to develop a vaccine and get it approved in record time. Gratitude for the research scientists, production line workers, nurses, respiratory therapists, doctors, cafeteria workers, patient advocates, clerical workers, cleaning staff, pharmacists, supply chain workers, administrators, and those in the transportation industry who got the vaccine from an idea in the spring to a shot into my left arm.

Tears of gratitude for all of the essential workers in grocery stores and post offices and delivery services who could not work from home. Thank you for showing up to keep our country running. Thank you also to those who have worked from home while juggling family life and, at times, the care of young children and their education as well.

Tears of gratitude for the teachers who are showing up, putting on their PPE and teaching the next generation, so that the next Dr. Fauci can emerge to lead us through the next crisis. Tears of gratitude for the spiritual leaders who have been there through it all.

So yes, I cried when I got my COVID vaccine, and just like a four-year-old in my pediatric office, my neon yellow band-aid represented so much. Instead of tears of fear and anger, though, mine were of relief, gratitude, and respect for everyone who wakes up every day to do the work they’ve been given to do. My band-aid is a symbol of protection, for me and those I love, from COVID in the future. Maybe next year the isolation and loneliness and fear will subside.

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