- Dr. Joy Henningsen is a diagnostic radiologist at the Birmingham Veterans Affairs Medical Center and a clinical assistant professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
- On December 17, she received the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine along with other hospital workers at the Birmingham VA Medical Center.
- Henningsen says she eagerly signed up to receive the vaccine as soon as it became available. After a temperature check, she says the injection process went quickly and that she "barely felt" the shot.
- For now, she says her day-to-day behavior will remain the same: avoiding bars or restaurants, wearing masks outside of her home, and practicing good sanitization, until a majority of Americans have also received the vaccine.
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We're in the middle of winter, with surge upon surge in COVID-19 cases, and the pandemic is far from over. And yet I'm euphoric — a novel feeling in this year dominated by a novel virus — because news of a safe and robust vaccine, while far from being a magic bullet, gives me great hope that the beginning of the end of the pandemic is here.
I felt a rush of optimism when Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna released their impressive vaccine efficacy data and tweeted about my enthusiasm to receive the vaccine.
I believe in vaccines, I believe in this vaccine, and I was beyond eager to roll up my sleeve to get it. I also applaud the FDA's emergency use authorization for the vaccine given the fact that COVID-19 cases are still on the rise across the US.
I learned that my facility, UAB Medicine in Birmingham, Alabama and the Birmingham Veterans Affairs Medical Center would be receiving doses in the first national shipment.
My employer kept us apprised every step of the way. Just before the FDA authorized use of the first COVID-19 vaccine, staff received a survey of interest asking if we would opt to receive the vaccine as soon as it's available; maybe; or not at all.
Since "yesterday" via time travel wasn't an option, I went with "as soon as it's available." I probably refreshed my work email a thousand times waiting for any update as to my appointment time after submitting the form. Personally, I would've taken the first approved vaccine offered to me, no matter the manufacturer.
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The brave staff in our ICU and emergency departments are at highest risk and were immunized first, followed by other healthcare workers and long-term care residents.
As a diagnostic radiologist, I'm not on the front lines, but I am a constant witness to COVID-19's serious effects via the dark tales told by my patients' medical images. I interpret images of the chest and lungs, which feature prominently in COVID's respiratory wrath, and work closely with my frontline colleagues to inform them of critical imaging results.
Beyond work, I'm also an outspoken pro-mask, pro-vaccine healthcare communicator who keeps COVID-19 front and center in my mind. I am but one of many critical cogs in the healthcare wheel, but I must stay well so I'm able to provide lifesaving diagnostic information that guides my patients' care. All members of the healthcare team should be protected.
I had zero reservations about getting the vaccine.
Thousands rolled up their sleeves during the various clinical trials, so even those of us fairly high on the priority list are not guinea pigs. The data from those early, willing trial volunteers gives me confidence that the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine is safe, which is why it was approved.
There have been reports of people feeling lousy for a day after the vaccine (pain at the site of injection, headaches, fever, muscle aches and chills — more common after the second dose), but I'll take a temporary side effect any day over contracting COVID-19. There have also been reports of allergic reactions, particularly in those with a history of severe allergies.
I do not have such a history, but if I did, I would follow CDC guidelines to get the vaccine in a supervised setting and be monitored for 30 minutes afterward after first discussing risks with my personal physician.
The notice of my own vaccine appointment was an additional tangible reminder we're slowly awakening from this global nightmare.
The vaccine process itself could not have been simpler.
I got the vaccine at the Birmingham VA Medical Center, and when I arrived for my appointment on December 17, it seemed they'd already been doing this for months rather than mere days. Everything was organized and streamlined with designated waiting areas and guided pathways to facilitate social distancing.
It felt very safe, and the holiday music and decorations made the process, dare I say, pleasant. I didn't expect that. People were laughing and chatting, and it was lovely to have a holiday vibe of good cheer.
After a temperature check, I filled out a questionnaire that asked us our past medical history and questions about allergies. I chose to have the injection in my non-dominant arm since there were reports of soreness.
Still, I found the COVID-19 vaccine to be much less painful than my flu shot earlier this fall — I barely felt it. I waited the required 15 minutes to make sure there were no adverse reactions, and then I was done.
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The sooner a majority of Americans can join me, the sooner we can return to the things we love.
I'm ecstatic to have been vaccinated, and am eager for my second dose in three weeks. I can't wait to one day return to traveling and socializing, but for now, my life will look exactly the same for some time.
I'll remain vigilant for my family and community, as should every vaccine recipient. My mother is also immunocompromised, which prompted my temporary move this year to be closer to her, so for this reason, my day-to-day behavior won't change in any way.
I will continue to have groceries delivered; I will not go to bars or restaurants; and I will wear masks anytime I'm indoors outside of my home. Wearing a mask, washing hands, and social distancing are all here to stay until at least 75% of the American public is immunized by some public health experts' estimations, so none of my personal practices the last 11 months will change.
It's still unknown whether or not vaccine recipients can transmit the virus to others — even if it prevents us from becoming ill ourselves. I won't risk the lives of the ones I love most.
The end of the pandemic can't come fast enough —and I'm one of the lucky ones with good health, a job, and a roof over my head. Still, there's also a weight to being a physician and healthcare communicator during a pandemic, especially one some Americans still do not even acknowledge as real.
But hope is on the horizon, and I'm overjoyed to have been a part of this moment in history.
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