There were times over the last 10 months or so that felt like this day would never come.
My experience since March 2020 has been well documented. Since February, I’ve been in one shop with the only other times I have stepped foot in a building being to see a Dr, have a blood test or some other treatment – all with heightened levels of fear and anxiety.
Even when the successful vaccines started making the news, I didn’t allow myself to hope. Over the last year, I’ve only been left depressed and disappointed holding onto such positive thoughts. So when a work colleague contacted me over the weekend to say that our NHS Trust had decided to make the vaccine available to all staff, including corporate/non-clinical, the field in which I work, I was delighted.
The largest vaccination programme in British history
For background, the UK Government has pledged to vaccinate all adults in the UK by Autumn 2021; a target helped massively by the approval of the ‘in house’ developed Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine. As part of their rollout, a priority group list was drawn up with people like myself and many others with chronic illnesses and autoimmune diseases requiring the treatment of immuno-suppression and steroids, falling into Priority Group 4, which began contacting people for vaccination from 18th January 2021.
I was lucky to essentially fall into Priority Group 2 as an NHS employee.
A surreal experience
After speaking with my colleague, I checked my work email, and to my amazement, there were appointment slots to book for the same day at my local hospital! In a surreal haze, I grabbed a 20:50hrs appointment and dug out my NHS ID badge, which I haven’t seen in months due to the working from home arrangements in place.
Somewhere between being informed I was eligible, getting a same-day slot and reading the information on the hospital’s website for all the do’s and don’ts I needed to be aware of ahead of my visit, a shadow of doubt started to creep in. Around an hour later, I had completely convinced myself that I would be turned away, given the uncertainty, misinformation and outright conspiracy theories you would have no doubt seen circulating about the virus online – usually from sources of no credibility whatsoever.
I was particularly aware of there being a preference for the Pfizer vaccine for the immuno-suppressed; something around the Oxford vaccine being manufactured differently. I couldn’t even remember where I heard this – doesn’t matter in today’s world of fake news, it was a seed of doubt and it had started to take root.
I promised myself not to Google anything. I would answer any questions they had, be completely honest, and if I got the vaccine, great, if they turned me away, I was in no worse position than I started the day.
As the light faded and my appointment grew closer, I was a fidgety bag of nerves. I wanted this so badly. It felt so close.
I was overwhelmed by the organisation at the hospital. I’ve always been fascinated by systems and processes. Still, given the vast pressures that this place was under – experiencing a situation that it has never faced before – I was completely taken aback at how smoothly the whole operation ran.
First, clear signposting for the vaccination centre, a converted day procedure unit, complete with free parking and an obvious one-way system. Then, the biggest surprise, the quiet. I don’t know what I expected really, long queues? A ticket system? Military helicopters crisscrossing overhead, drowning out a tannoy system as you see in the movies? I jest, of course, but I certainly didn’t expect the silence, the lack of people, the lack of any sign of crisis. It made me feel proud to work for such an institution.
I made my way from the designated car park up a tunnelled corridor. The first person I saw was a security guard who greeted me. ‘Do you have an appointment?‘. Upon answering ‘Yes‘, I was given a form to complete using my own pen that I had been asked to bring with me. By now, two other people had joined me in completing the paperwork. Where is everyone? I again asked myself.
Upon completing the paperwork and showing my NHS ID badge, I was directed to a nurse who took my temperature. Then to another nurse who ushered me straight into the vaccination room. ‘Take a seat on one of these chairs and the next available station will call you up‘ I was told. There were approximately 6-8 ‘stations’, each with a doctor/pharmacist and a nurse, a trolley full of equipment and someone being vaccinated. Then there was me. No queue, no drama, just a gentle buzz of conversation, bright lights and eyes smiling in place of masked mouths.
Within a minute, I was called to station and asked to remove my coat.
As the UK becomes the first country to vaccinate against Covid-19, a look back at my coverage of a historic year
As the UK became the first country in the world to vaccinate against Covid-19 virus, I’ve collected my articles on the pandemic as I documented my personal experience.
The doctor introduced herself and started going through the questions on the sheet of paper I handed to her, starting with asking me to confirm my name and birth date. At this point, I realised I hadn’t even read what was on this double-sided piece of paper; it happened so fast. In my haze, I had filled in the boxes I was instructed to and moved on.
Some questions were asked about allergies, so I mentioned my one of cashew nuts, then if I was on any blood thinners or had any infections recently. I was then told I would be getting the Pfizer vaccine. At this point, there had been no mention of my medical background, my history, my medications. Perhaps it was looked at in advance but to be safe; I mentioned that I was on biologics by casually saying ‘I’m glad it’s the Pfizer one, someone said to be careful on Biologics with the Oxford one.’. ‘I’m not aware of that‘ she sternly replied and then asked me for specifics and what Biologic I was on.
‘No evidence’ of a preferred vaccine for the immunosuppressed
By the end of the conversation, I was completely reassured that the information I had was unfounded and their only concern with the immunosuppressed at the moment is the efficacy of the vaccine, as there simply hadn’t been enough people in my position vaccinated long enough to see if we get the same level of protection as the general public. With that dealt with, we moved onto the vaccine, much to my delight.
I offered my non-dominant left arm and was warned about side effects compared to the usual annual flu jab. I was told that there have been a number of reports that the injected arm aches more than usual, headaches afterwards are common and generally feeling a little under the weather for a couple of days. I acknowledged and was promptly vaccinated!
The first thing I noticed was the instant arm ache, as opposed to the flu jab, which tends to present hours later. Within seconds, this tracked up my left-hand side into my neck, and I had an uncomfortable (but bearable), neck and shoulder pain similar to a pulled muscle – all whilst the doctor was still holding a pad over my injection site. I didn’t feel the need to mention it, but it was unpleasant, so worth mentioning in this piece to allay anyone else’s fears, should they have a similar experience.
A few seconds later, I was given the important guidance of how I am not fully protected until 7-10 days after my second jab and need to practice social distancing etc. still and was directed to a waiting area where we were asked to stay for 15 minutes should anyone have an allergic reaction and suchlike.
Due to my excitement, 15 minutes went by in a flash, and I thanked the security guard as I walked proudly into the crisp night air, carrying the weight of my gratitude to be one of the lucky few to have some level of protection against this awful virus. As I drove away from the hospital, my eyes welled with tears – finally, a small glimmer of hope had been turned back on in my world.
Apart from a headache later that evening, that was it. No issues, no other side effects apart from a dull ache in the muscle the day after. I could have easily taken paracetamol to help the headache that evening, but I wanted to experience the vaccination unfiltered to benefit this article. I even have my second vaccine booked in for the end of March – that’s something the media are not talking about.
From today, I have hope again. From today, I can see a future. A future of beers with friends, holding birthday parties for my son, going on holiday, watching live music and days spent at the beach. I also see a future of paying respects at funerals of lost loved ones, having physical contact for friends and family support through the tough times and the inevitable economic downturn that is to come.
As you see, this colossus effort to vaccinate an entire country in a few months, a national effort not seen since World War 2, means absolutely nothing if we do not learn. The next pandemic-potential virus is probably already circulating, perhaps in an animal or already in the human population. This vaccine won’t protect you – we will have to go through all this again if we do not learn.
The signs have been there for years – it took getting Swine Flu in 2008 and being horrifically ill where no doctor would come to the house for me to see the potential of a pandemic personally. But not enough people were impacted, so everyone turned a blind eye.
Worryingly, as I sit here typing this on the 18th January 2021, where 94 MILLION people have been infected worldwide (that we know of) and 90,000 confirmed deaths in the UK alone, I fear we still haven’t had enough people see the reality of this horrible situation with their own eyes to learn, to change; like those in the NHS or who have lost loved ones have suffered through, and it will be at the detriment of us all when this happens again – and it will happen again.