I Am Immune-Compromised With Several Underlying Health Conditions & Got the COVID-19 Vaccine: Here’s What Happened by Elisa Schmitz
I cried when I got my first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. Not because it hurt. Not because I was scared. Not because the health-care worker administering it hurt my feelings. I cried because I was so relieved. I cried because I could finally exhale. I cried because I felt more hope than I’d known in more than a year.
Getting a Vaccine Appointment
I had been trying to get a COVID-19 vaccine appointment for weeks. My husband and I both have underlying health conditions that made us eligible to receive the vaccine in our area, and yet we couldn’t get an appointment. A friend added me to a local Facebook group that offered helpful tips on how to get an appointment. And still, trying to sign up via several pharmacies, health-care providers and even mass vaccination sites was an exercise in frustration. Sometimes we’d get to the final screen and it looked like we were finally in, only to have the site or app crash, leaving us banging our heads against the wall. We often joked that it felt like we were playing The Hunger Games, but "the odds were not ever in our favor."
It was maddening enough that I gave up, several times, telling myself that it would happen when it was supposed to happen. And then I’d listen to Dr. Fauci or a news report that reminded me that this was definitely not a game, and I needed to keep trying. Even after a year of staying home during the pandemic, wearing masks, washing hands incessantly and social distancing, with the virus variants on the rise, we are not nearly out of the woods yet.
COVID-19 vaccines have been shown to be safe and effective, and they are one of the best hopes we have for putting an end to this murderous coronavirus pandemic that has affected us all. We need to be vaccinated to protect others and to protect ourselves. Personally, our family has been deeply affected by this horrible disease. Several family members have had mild to severe cases of it, and even death. I’m sure these hitting-too-close-to-home experiences, as well as knowing my compromised immune system puts me at greater risk of complications and dying from the virus, made me especially motivated to take the vaccine.
So I kept at it, hitting the apps, websites and phone numbers for all the available providers I could find. I finally scored two appointments for my husband and me at a pharmacy in downstate Illinois, a three- or four-hour drive each way. I polled my personal team of healthcare providers to see what they thought. The majority advised that because of my risk for having a reaction to the vaccine, it was better that I get the shot closer to home, and preferably at a medical facility rather than a pharmacy or mass vaccination site.
As we are our own best healthcare advocates, I decided to intensify my phone calls. I left messages for our county and state health boards. I called local hospital systems that were providing the vaccine to medically compromised people like me. After several calls and long hold times, I spoke to someone at each facility I called. Even though I’m sure they were hearing the same thing from zillions of people wanting the same appointments, they were patient and kind and as helpful as they could be, under the circumstances. Rush University Medical System had me on hold for nearly an hour. I thought about hanging up a couple times, but did not. I just worked on other things while I was on hold.
And then someone finally answered, an angel named MaryAnn. We went through the screening questions and when she told me I was eligible, I breathed a huge sigh of relief. We did the same for my husband. When she told me she had two appointments together the next day to receive the first of two doses of the Pfizer vaccine, I choked up. “Seriously?” I asked. “Yes!” She replied. “You’re an angel,” I told her, and she laughed. Please, be extra kind to everyone working on the front lines of this battle. They're all doing the best they can in a very difficult situation.
We canceled our pharmacy appointments with plenty of time to allow others to book them. It gives me peace knowing that two people desperately trying to get appointments had their days made when they found the ones we released.
The next day, we arrived at Rush a bit early. We checked in and were handed a surgical mask, even though we were wearing our own. “You’ll need to wear ours while you’re in our hospital,” the representative told us. “Whatever you need,” we replied, putting their mask on over own own.
We waited in the COVID vaccine waiting area, which included social-distancing signage and seating. They called small groups by appointment times. Our 11:40 a.m. group had maybe five to 10 people in it. We were led to the vaccination area, set up in the atrium lobby, adjacent to the emergency room. We checked in, showing our drivers license (we had already submitted our insurance information online). We were given a number, along with our official COVID-19 Vaccination Record Cards. These important cards contain information about the exact dose of vaccine you received and on which date. Treat them as you would your passport (who knows, they may end up being a sort of health passport to allow you to travel safely someday). We then waited in socially-distanced seating until our numbers were called.
Once called, my husband and I went to a station manned by a pharmacy tech named Imario. He explained the process, which was pretty straightforward: sit down, expose your preferred arm up to the shoulder, get jabbed. I announced that I was nervous, so my husband volunteered to go first. Watching it happen helped a lot. It was truly no big deal and took a matter of seconds.
Yet when it was my turn, Imario knew I was still apprehensive. I briefly shared why – I was concerned about an anaphylactic (or other) allergic reaction and had my Epi-pen with me – and he explained that there were nurses monitoring everyone in the post-vaccine waiting area, so I was in good hands. And then, he suggested we do a breathing exercise together: inhale for four counts, exhale for four counts. Then on the next four-count inhale/exhale, he would vaccinate me. It worked great, and I barely felt the needle. We thanked him profusely, then headed to the post-vaccine waiting area.
We checked in and were given a sticker to wear, sharing that we had just been vaccinated. What is it about stickers that make you feel so proud? It’s like a little award, and it works just as well for adults as it does for kids. Someone in the waiting area saw ours and said, “Hey, I didn’t get one of those and I want one!” The situation was quickly remedied and he wore his sticker out with pride.
Once we were seated, a nurse named Beth-Anne came over to ask how we were feeling. I explained my complicated health issues, and she said they were prepared with Epi-pens and whatever else I might need. She then asked that I stay for an hour instead of the usual 15 minutes to make sure I was OK before leaving. I agreed, and my husband and I passed the time in some giddy, post-vaccine fog that felt like the rainbow after the storm. Chatting with Beth-Anne, we learned that while the emergency room was just steps away, they’d only had to use it for vaccine-related patients who experienced maybe some lightheadedness due to dehydration or anxiety – no anaphylaxis as of yet. Very reassuring.
When we were ready to leave, she made sure we were feeling well enough and walked with us a bit as we headed out. I can’t say enough about the kindness and care we were shown at Rush. Everyone was calm and understanding and patient. I can only imagine how hard their jobs are, especially during the pandemic and now the vaccinations. I am very grateful for our healthcare heroes, now more than ever.
Post-Vaccination and Side Effects
The rest of the day, I was so tired. I started experiencing several very intense side effects, most concerning of which was the tachycardia (heart rate in the 130-140 range for hours). My doctors had warned that my dysautonomia would likely flare up, and a relentless rapid heart rate is part of what I experience when it does. I decided to ride it out at home unless it got worse. I was nauseous and couldn’t lift my arm without a lot of pain, but continued to do so, to (ironically) help it get better. My neck and back had radiating pain. I developed an intense headache that wrapped around my eyes. But other than that, I was fine, ha!
My husband, on the other hand, experienced absolutely no side effects. “If we were in the vaccine study, I would have thought I’d gotten the placebo,” he laughed, feeling guilty he couldn’t share some of my pain. The reality of the vaccine is that women experience more side effects than men, and younger people experience more side effects than older people. So with him being a man who is older than I am, coupled with my health issues, my having a stronger reaction was bound to happen! I’m three days post-vaccination and still have a mild headache, elevated heart rate and fatigue.
But these side effects mean that my body is mounting an immune response, which is good. And they’re nothing compared to what having COVID would do to me. In any event, it’s completely worth it for this feeling of hope. In a very dark pandemic time for our world, the vaccines are the light. Science is working hard to come through for us, and all we need to do is roll up our sleeves and take the shot. Together we can move the needle; together we can end this suffering and death.
Please take care of yourself, and each other, and get vaccinated, so we can get back to being together again. Don't give up, even if it's not easy. Be your own advocate, even though it may be frustrating. "And may the odds be ever in your favor."
Thank you, science, and thank you, health-care heroes. You are the real MVPs!
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