I told my patients I was choosing to get the COVID-19 vaccine to hug my grandmother again without fear that my embrace would kill her. That was December 2020. The shot gave me one last chance to say goodbye.
My 60-year-old mother told me, “I’ll get the pneumonia vaccine now, and then I think I’ll wait a few more months before I get the COVID vaccine.”
I suggested, “You know COVID pneumonia is way worse and more likely to kill you than pneumococcus pneumonia, right? So why don’t you get your COVID vaccine now and then the pneumonia vaccine two weeks after you’ve been fully vaccinated or get the Pneumovax now then the COVID vaccine two weeks later?”
“You sound just like my doctor. That’s what he told me yesterday!” she replied.
That is probably because I, too, am a doctor. And once upon a time, my mother was a registered nurse.
“My mom is getting weak. So I may need to go back home soon,” she added. My mother immigrated to the US for college, where she met then married, my father.
“What if Pau Pau (what I call my maternal grandmother) gets sick or has a heart attack, and then you need to go back right away, but you bring Covid? It takes two weeks from the second injection for full immunity. Then you’re going to regret having waited to get vaccinated or regret making her already fragile health condition even worse. Don’t you want to be able to hug her without worrying you might kill her?”
Harsh. I know.
This exact scenario had already played out with Nying Nying, my paternal grandmother. My mother did not know at the time of this conversation and will soon learn through this post.
On March 12, all of the grandchildren received a group text. Our Nying Nying was stable in the ICU following a massive heart attack. I felt relieved knowing that my 90-year-old grandmother would not enter the Emergency Room with a heart attack and then succumb to COVID in the ICU because she had already been vaccinated.
Likewise, I felt comforted knowing that her only living son (my uncle) would not have to choose between possibly visiting his mother on her deathbed and his own mortality (for indeed the combination of COVID on top of his COPD would mean his demise). Their choices to be vaccinated months earlier had saved our family not only from a deadly disease but heartbreakingly difficult decisions.
No visitors were allowed in the ICU, so I flew out to see her when she finally made it home. I arrived to see my feisty and proud grandmother (whose sass and sarcasm I obviously inherited) now a frail, silver-haired form slumped in a recliner. I crumpled to the floor, and the dam of emotions burst. I held her hand, and my tears saturated her sleeve.
I spent the next 24 hours at her side until I had to fly back for hospital work Monday morning.
I was lucky. I work in a hospital setting, so I got first dibs on Covid vaccination back in December 2020. I had been fully vaccinated for a while before my grandmother’s heart gave out. My cousins and my brother could only send flowers and loving sentiments from afar because, at the time, they were not eligible for vaccination. They could only hope that Nying Nying would continue to hang on long enough for them to get vaccinated and visit safely, maybe for the last time.
My grandmother had a setback during her recovery. Se needed to be admitted to a skilled nursing facility (SNF). Because she was vaccinated, I didn’t worry that her name would be added to the list of nursing home deaths prevalent early in the pandemic.
Fortunately, by the time she was well enough for discharge, all of her grandchildren had been vaccinated.
She made it out of the ICU.
She made it out of the skilled nursing facility.
She made it home.
I’m not going to lie… I would have been furious with her if my grandmother had delayed her vaccination and contracted Covid from her ICU bed or if her physical therapy at the SNF put her in Covid’s destructive path. My profound grief would have been tainted with anger if her preventable Covid death would have deprived me of one last goodbye.
In December 2020, I said that I was choosing to get the COVID-19 vaccine to hug my grandmother again without fear that it would kill her. Her heart attack almost stole that hug from me.
I did not, however, have to decide, “Do I selfishly scurry through a crowded airport and hop on a plane to see her one last time? Or do I love her enough to keep her safe by staying away?”
Vaccination rescued me from a lifetime of guilt that whispering the words “I love you” in her ears might have been a Covid kiss of death for my grandmother.
So many families never got that one more warm embrace. So many families lost someone after a gathering they did not realize was so risky.
As I sit here at her kitchen table while Nying Nying is napping, I am so grateful that the Covid vaccination gave me today… this one more day with the person I cherish most in this world.
If I grow a tail tomorrow (or insert whatever internet vaccine conspiracy theory here), so be it. It was all worth it. This miracle of Medicine gifted my family with more precious moments.
Heart attacks and car accidents happen every day. I guess what I’m saying is… now that almost everyone is eligible for Covid vaccination, why wait until it’s too late?
Get vaccinated for the people you love.
Get vaccinated for the people that love you.
Of course, I felt terrible that my comments made my mom cry. But, sometimes the truth hurts… and hurts way more than the Covid vaccine my mother finally got.
By: Dr. Stacey Thomas, Obgyn Physician at MacArthur Medical Center