Just shy of four years ago, I got laid out flat by a bout of acute double-lung pneumonia that had me in the ICU for 11 days, with a fair portion of the time spent on a ventilator. When I got out, my lungs were ragged, shabby things raddled with scar tissue. I am fine at rest, but stairs remain daunting even after all this time, and I am winded after the simplest activities. This is how it is for me now, and how it will always be.
Despite Donald Trump’s best efforts, however, irony is still alive and kicking. I know this because my near-death pneumonia experience, the single worst thing to happen to me physically in my life, helped to qualify me for an early shot of the new COVID-19 vaccines, which could very well save my life because my rotten lungs would fare poorly against the Rona. Life is weird, man.
My nurse-practitioner confirmed my status, I filed out the registration, and zap, straight to (almost) the front of the line. I was scheduled for an injection the first week in April, and I freely confess to feeling guilty about it. I am no picture of health, to be sure, but there had to be others out there who deserved it more than I do. I stewed on this a bit until a friend, another medical professional who has been eyes-deep in the COVID wars since the beginning, set me straight with authority.
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“I really wish people would stop feeling guilty for getting the vaccine,” she told me. “Every one of us who gets it is helping the greater cause. And you ALL deserve it. They had to use certain criteria because of the shortages but more and more vaccines are becoming available. I’m relieved and hopeful with every single person I hear getting it. Congratulations.”
I know when I’ve been pwned, so OK then, time to wait… and friends, that’s when the really weird music started. Those of you have read any of the 100,000+ words I’ve written on COVID since this nightmare began know I have written about fear more than once. It was a manageable fear, though, at least for me. Stick to the rules, keep the bubble as intact as much as possible, wear the mask, stay home, and maximize your chances of seeing the far side of this thing. I have stuck to that for a year and it has served me well. The fear was there, but in a corner, mostly minding its business. I was functionally terrified, but fully functioning.
In the movie Jaws, there’s an iconic scene where Quint, the salty old shark hunter, tells his tale of being on the U.S.S. Indianapolis when it was torpedoed in the Pacific, all the men went into the sea, and the sharks came marauding. After three days, a rescue ship appeared on the horizon, and the surviving sailors queued up to climb aboard. “You know that was the time I was most frightened,” said Quint. “Waitin’ for my turn.”
I know exactly how he felt. The mere thought that this was going to happen, that a gleam of hope was shining a little more than a month away, almost froze me in place. I curtailed my activities even further, isolated myself more — and waited.
As it turned out, the wait was not long at all. My little corner of New Hampshire has been so efficient at vaccine delivery that the organizers were able to move everyone on the list up a full month. My call came just a few days ago: Can you and your mother be here at 5:00 pm today for your shots? My mom is age-qualified and even more bunkered in than I am, so the answer was easy: Hells to the yes, we’ll be there.
The process was a Swiss clockwork of logistical management. We drove to an open athletic field behind the Keene State sports facilities and parked in ordered rows alongside dozens of other cars. National Guard soldiers took our names and confirmed our date of shot. A few medical questions were asked.
After a few minutes, two nurses carrying plastic baskets filled with Pfizer-shot syringes and wipes appeared and began to move from car window to car window injecting passengers. Zap, boom, done.
We all sat for 15 minutes with our hazard lights blinking, waiting to see if any immediate side effects presented themselves. (At one point during the wait, I slowly lunged at my mom in the passenger seat snarling “Brains, brains, must eat brains!” and the folks in the next car over nearly went straight up to Jesus through the sunroof, because I am a bad person.) None did, and one by one we rolled off into the dusk. The whole thing took less than an hour, and removed several tons of invisible bricks from my chest. This was happening. No, this happened.
I took a bit of a beating in the side effects category, which isn’t necessarily typical for dose 1. Nothing terrible by any means, but for three days I felt like I was trying to walk underwater, malaise, fatigue, all of which was cured by sleeping through it as much as I could. For a day, my injection site in my left bicep felt like my boyhood friend Andrew had landed a perfect dead-arm punch, but that passed just as quickly. That was it. Today, I’m all the way back, and looking giddily forward to my booster, which happens to land on the day I was supposed to get my first shot. Life is weird, man.
One grim aspect came to me as I sat in my car and watched those professionals roll through the process. How many people would still be alive and healthy, I wondered, if the previous administration had made a real effort to respond rapidly and broadly to COVID? Thousands? Hundreds of thousands? The Army does something very much like this every day to feed the troops; it is logistics, nothing more or less. It is effort, period. As I watched the clockwork spin, the full weight of Trump’s crimes against us all had never, ever felt so present.
Even now in this post-Trump era, vast vaccine inequities continue to play out. “As of March 10, anyone 60 years and older can sign up for the vaccine in the Empire State,” reports Leanna First-Arai for Truthout. “Grocery, restaurant, delivery workers and other ‘public-facing’employees in various nodes of the food industry have been eligible since late February. But farmworkers — including those milking cows, feeding chickens and picking tomatoes in close quarters inside greenhouses — are still not among those who may sign up for vaccination.” These disparities fall along racial, economic and disability-related lines. In a number of cases, access to the internet can determinate who may access the vaccine.
As for the vaccines themselves, am I worried about the long-term effects of this massive and unprecedented global science experiment? At present, not really. Part of it is simple giddy trust in the idea that turning a billion people into zombie monsters would be bad for the bottom line over at Moderna, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson, and they know this. This was a dazzling leap forward for medicine, Star Trek shit, and it will serve us well as we enter the Age of the Pandemic for real.
Part of it is the fact that I have only so much RAM in my head for theoretical horrors, given how much actual horror surrounds us every day. Example: Some 25 percent of Republicans in congress have refused to get the shot, pretty much because Trump hasn’t given it his blessing yet. No surprise here: These are the same Republicans taking credit for the stimulus bill they unanimously voted against. This is where I spend my RAM; vaccine “what if’s” can take a number in the face of this endlessly grasping, self-destructive nonsense.
These people, however, are outliers; a majority of the country is actively seeking vaccination, and in an excellent sign, almost all who require two shots are returning to get the second one. Bet your bippy I’ll be going for mine unless the creek rises, and I urge all who read this to do the same when you have access. Is it a leap of faith? I suppose, yeah, and we all have to make our own choices.
“Someday this war’s gonna end,” said Col. Kilgore in Apocalypse Now. This war will end not with a bang, or a whimper, but a dose in the arm. We’ll figure out the rest as it goes. The variants are out there, and if everything changes for the worse in a month, we’ll figure that out, too. When it becomes available to you, get the shot.