As a public health nurse in Chicago, I was one of the first people offered the vaccine. In late December, I eagerly rolled up my sleeve and felt a small prick in my left arm as I got my first dose.
I wasn't anxious in the weeks, days and hours before I arrived at the site to get the vaccine; I felt excited. I knew there might be side effects, which I wasn't looking forward to, but the idea of being fully vaccinated in a few weeks felt worth it. While I knew precautions, such as mask-wearing, would still be necessary post-vaccination, I imagined how strange and new it would feel to go out in public as a vaccinated person. All the situations I had been primed to be on full alert for could feel a little easier.
Then I sat alone on a plastic chair, waiting the recommended 15 minutes to make sure everything was fine.
That was when panic set in. My face felt hot. My heart beat quickly. Were these signs that something was wrong?
The mood in the vaccine clinic buzzed with excited energy. Music echoed off high ceilings, and nurses chatted six feet away from each other, friendly and upbeat. No one seemed worried but me.
I was embarrassed at my anxious reaction to getting the vaccine. What may have been a psychological reaction or a normal vasovagal response, in which people can feel warm or dizzy after a stimulus, felt briefly overwhelming.
As a nurse, I felt as though I should be smarter than that. I knew the science. I had read the emergency use authorization that Pfizer had submitted for FDA approval before I made the decision to get vaccinated.
I knew the Pfizer vaccine was 95% effective and very safe. I knew to expect possible small side effects, such as soreness at the injection site, or potentially a headache or chills. My anxiety surprised me.
More than 9 million Americans have received their first dose of the coronavirus vaccine, lagging behind projected goals for 20 million vaccinations by the end of last year.
According to a Kaiser Family Foundation report, 27% of the public — and 29% of health-care workers — say they would probably or definitely not get a vaccine, citing fears of potential side effects, governmental distrust and concerns that the vaccine is too new.
These numbers are even higher in Black and Latinx communities, where there is understandable distrust of the medical community.
In some hospitals and nursing homes, up to 80% of staff members are not getting the vaccine.
Americans are absorbing information about a new vaccine against a backdrop of heightened levels of stress. Over the summer, 53% of American adults reported that their mental health had worsened because of the pandemic, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.
There's an odd logic in the brain of someone who feels anxious, a kind of pessimistic exceptionalism. It goes like this: Even if a bad outcome is statistically rare, I feel as though that bad outcome could easily happen to me.
I know that only 1 in 90,000 people have had an allergic reaction to an mRNA vaccine, and that health-care providers know how to safely manage an allergic response. But somehow, I imagined that I would be the 1 in 90,000.
I've been on the other side of this, as a calm and rational provider. When I worked in an inpatient hospital setting, I gave blood transfusions to cancer patients with dangerously low blood counts. Even blood, a completely natural, lifesaving intervention, carries risks when you administer it. While allergic reactions to blood are rare, nurses prepare by monitoring vital signs and giving medications to ensure that patients are safe.
But even as nurses are driven by logic and science in patient care, we aren't always rational about our own health.
I worked the night shift on a floor that primarily treated pediatric brain tumors. Overnight work felt especially brutal; I would come home at 8 a.m., feeling emotional, headache-y, desperately thirsty and craving cheeseburgers.
The nurses I worked with all knew how working overnight affected our bodies, but it wasn't uncommon to hear a nurse on my floor with a bad headache state, "What if I have a brain tumor?"
The much more rational reason for a headache was disrupted sleep or stress, but our minds often went to the worst-case scenario because of the world around us. And because of fear.
The scientific advances with vaccines, which have developed over decades of research to get us to today, are truly impressive. I'm grateful to live in a time in history that has such advances, and also to live in a country that is able to quickly reap the benefits. Not everyone is so lucky.
And still, my eagerness to be safer while doing my job is also blended with other emotions I may not feel as proud of. It's why I connect with health-care providers I trust to discuss both the science of vaccination as well as my emotions.
When I started feeling anxious while sitting in the plastic chair after receiving the vaccine, I texted two close friends who are nurses in St. Louis.
My friend Kate quickly responded, "I understand!"
And that's all I needed. I stood up and left the clinic holding my vaccine card stamped with a record of my first dose. And I breathed a sigh of relief.
Brockland is a community health nurse at Rush University College of Nursing in Chicago and a fellow with the OpEd Project. This piece was written for The Washington Post.
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