I was always ready to say yes to the COVID-19 vaccine. I’d been following its development from the very beginning of the pandemic and said, again and again, that I’d happily get vaccinated. Working in critical care during the first deadly wave of the virus, my team and I had yearned for any relief from the frustration and sorrow we felt. We lived in the constant presence of death and loss, treating patients without treatment options while living in fear of contracting the virus ourselves.
We needed the hope a COVID vaccine might deliver. When my employer, Northwell Health, asked for volunteers to get the shot on day one, I stepped forward to say, “Yes.”
It ended up being a milestone in the history of the pandemic. In the first year they were available, vaccines saved at least 19 million lives around the world. Mine may have been among the first.
Later, some people would say I’d been used, coerced, even paid. But getting the first COVID-19 vaccine outside of a clinical trial was not a mistake. The only mistake was thinking that, after the injection, I’d be going immediately back to work.
The day had other plans. There was a press conference, and a whirlwind of interviews, then speaking engagements. When I said, “Yes,” to the vaccine, I unknowingly opened my eyes to a world of possibilities and advocacy.
Risk, for example, looks different to me now.
More than 6.3 million people worldwide have died from COVID-19 so far. As of this writing, almost 549 million people have been diagnosed with it. That’s where risk and true danger exist–in people eschewing data and the evidence-based advice of medical professionals in favor of anger and falsehoods and fear, often fomented online.
Saying yes also gave me a renewed sense of responsibility. I’ve heard so often that COVID-19 has pulled back the curtain on health inequities that I sometimes worry we’ll accept those inequalities as an entrenched fact that we cannot undo. I take seriously the opportunity I have to support public health in underserved communities and communities of color. This is my space; I’m a Black immigrant from Jamaica who came to this country to become a nurse.
For some, it’s uncomfortable to discuss the fact that too many communities of color in the United States lack access to acceptable health and medical care. Let’s discuss it anyway. Transforming health care deserts into healthy, robust communities with affordable, high-quality resources is a massive challenge. We may not find a perfect solution but it’s our responsibility to say yes to conversations about how we can remove barriers and inequities in our health care system.
I felt empowered when I said yes to the COVID-19 vaccine—it was more than a dose of antibodies. It represented a hopeful, new beginning. That moment has been a gift, an opportunity to grow and expand my professional purpose. I certainly didn’t predict receiving a Presidential Medal of Freedom. But In some ways, it was less of a choice than it was a seamless transition. Maybe my having said, “Yes,” will inspire others to do the same.
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