Health and Wellness

A 29-year-old nurse shares her experience getting the Covid-19 vaccine: 'A gleam of light at the end of the tunnel'

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Doctor preparing the coronavirus COVID-19 vaccine
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On Dec. 17, 2020, the Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia administered their first Covid-19 vaccines to staff.

Even as a nurse educator, I initially hesitated at the thought of getting the vaccine. But after doing my own research and listening to the guidance of experts, including doctors and epidemiologists, I felt confident that doing so was the right choice.

I'm a healthy 29-year-old new mother married to a police officer who has not yet been vaccinated. So it was important for me to protect myself and my family.

The process for the first vaccination

Knowing the importance of time, I arrived a few minutes early to my vaccination appointment. Both the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines that have approved so far have a short shelf life once prepared, so missing your slot or arriving late could result in wasted doses.

I was asked if I felt sick, had a fever, or had a history of Guillain-Barré syndrome, a rare immune disorder that can be associated with vaccine administration. I was also asked if I had tested positive for Covid-19 in the last two weeks, or if I was being monitored for the virus.

(All recipients of the vaccine are asked the same questions. I answered "no" to all, so I was able to receive my first dose. If I had felt sick, I would have been told to wait a few days as a precaution before receiving my vaccine.)

After getting the first shot, I was given a vaccination card with the lot number of the vaccine. All recipients receive the same card, which gets updated when they get their second dose of the vaccine.

I was monitored for 15 minutes in case of an allergic reaction before I was allowed to leave.

The waiting period after the first vaccine

After scheduling a date for my second shot, I signed up for v-safe, a smartphone-based tool that uses text messaging and web surveys to provide personalized health check-ins after you receive the vaccine.

The use of v-safe is optional. It alerts the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of reported side effects. Depending on a user's response, someone from the CDC may reach out for more information.

I submitted my first check-in to v-safe and felt normal after the waiting period, so I went back to my daily routine. Over the course of the next 48 hours, the only symptom I experienced was soreness at the injection site, which is common.

I continued to check in when prompted via text by v-safe and was alerted when it came close to receive my second dose. For the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, which I received, the shots are spaced out over a period of three weeks. (The Moderna vaccine recommends four weeks between doses.)

Following the second dose

Getting the second dose was much like getting the first, but after the second shot, I felt slightly more symptomatic. I experienced body aches, a headache and a low-grade fever. But by the next day, I felt fine again.

According to the CDC, the most commonly reported side effects of the vaccines are:

  • Pain or swelling at the injection site
  • Chills
  • Fatigue
  • Fever
  • Headache

To reduce discomfort at the injection site, it is recommended that you apply a clean, cool, wet washcloth to the area and to continue using the arm.

Although symptoms after vaccination are common, you should contact your healthcare provider if redness or tenderness at the injection site worsens after 24 hours or if your side effects persist for more than a few days.

What does the vaccine do?

I get asked this question a lot. The vaccine helps our bodies develop immunity without having to be sick with the virus. After a vaccination, the process of building immunity can cause symptoms to occur, which is a sign that the body is building immunity.

Both the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines use messenger RNA (mRNA), a genetic material that teaches our cells how to make a protein that generates an immune response. The mRNA vaccines are not a weakened or inactivated form of Covid-19.

Neither of the vaccines are recommended if someone has a history of a severe allergic reaction to any ingredient in an mRNA Covid-19 vaccine. If someone experiences a severe or immediate allergic reaction (e.g., hives, rashes or wheezing) within four hours of vaccination to their first dose of either vaccine, it isn't recommended to receive the second dose.

When I received my vaccine, I was told that it may not take full effect until a week or so following my second dose. For that reason and others, although vaccinations are a step in the right direction, we must continue to wear masks, wash our hands and social distance.

When I asked about the recent news about the new Covid-19 variants, Glenn F. Rall, the Chief Academic Officer at Fox Chase, told me that while it appears the existing vaccines may not be as effective against infection by these variants, "the good news is that the vaccines that have emergency use authorizations (EUA), or for which EUAs are expected soon, are very effective at preventing serious illness following infection, which is the key."

The fully expected appearance of variants nevertheless underscores the urgency for people to get their vaccines when offered, he says.

'A gleam of light'

I feel safer knowing that I've gotten both vaccinations. But we're not yet out of the woods; there is a long way to go before we can expect to return to pre-pandemic life — or some of it, at least.

After months of uncertainty, fear and ever-changing information during the early pandemic days, I recall my co-workers and I breathe a collective sigh of relief when vaccine announcements were made.

I'll never forget the day when a small group of our staff gathered around to watch a respiratory therapist be the first Fox Chase employee to get vaccinated.

As the small bandage was placed on his arm, a round of applause erupted. With tears in our eyes, I finally saw a small gleam of light at the end of the tunnel.

Diana DiMarcantonio Kott, MSN, RN, OCN, NPD-BC, is the coordinator of Nursing Continuing Education and Professional Development at the Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. 

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