“Hope is important because it can make the present moment less difficult to bear. If we believe that tomorrow will be better, we can bear a hardship today.” — Thich Nhat Hanh
Hope is what I see at the mass vaccine site at the Southwest Florida airport in Fort Myers, FL. The thousands of Lee County Floridians coming to the airport for their first dose of vaccine have Hope …. you can see it in their faces, their smiles, their tears. All of the stress of trying to get an appointment by calling in, when 78,000 calls jammed the phone lines in the first moment they were told to call or trying over and over again online just to find out that all appointments have been filled, is gone. Finally they are waiting in line patiently until they get to the medical tent – a huge monolith temporarily – although not looking temporary – built on the parking lot of the airport where they Hope that Normalcy is in sight.
This is my second year as a snowbird in North Fort Myers, and both have been pandemic years – so not normal by any means. When I arrived this winter I felt bad, as I had in Missouri- Lake of the Ozarks is my other home- that I was not on the front lines helping my fellow nurses and all of the healthcare workers who put themselves at risk everyday to give care to all of the frightened patients with COVID-19. I, being a nurse who primarily teaches, consults and reviews charts behind a computer, felt so guilty that I was not able to help them during a pandemic. When I got to Florida, vaccinations were starting to be distributed and there was a shortage of clinicians to give them. So, I called public health and ultimately became a member of the SWFL Medical Reserve Corps (MRC).
While my application was in process, Lee County public health, which is over the MRC volunteers, was moving from site to site as they were adjusting to the awesome and overwhelming assignment of vaccinating Everyone– But, by the time I was approved, after taking tests about infection control, etc, and getting fingerprinted, the semi-permanent site at the airport was in place. It’s like a little city on a parking lot- really impressive. A very organized well-oiled machine with hundreds of employees and volunteers- police, medical professionals, and many support staff.
By this point, there are so many nurses that have joined MRC to volunteer that there isn’t always a lot of openings. But as more doses are being distributed this will change- also Lee County works with other FL counties that Do need volunteers. The outpouring of volunteers really is awe-inspiring.
My location, the medical tent, has volunteer MRC nurses, as well as nurses contracted for months from agencies in Miami, and paramedics, EMTs, and support people called ‘runners’. There is a station where the all day long, a team draws up vaccine into the syringes, then runners take syringes to the nurse’s stations. Of course, there is paperwork to complete and runners come by and pick those up. Anything I need is taken care of just by flagging down a runner. The efficiency is incredible!
After getting my station prepared- basically a table where a sharps, alcohol, wipes, ever present masks, gloves and hand sanitizer, etc is set up- I await the first patient. The support staff at the entrance of the tent tell the people which station to go to- then another staff person leads them there. They have waited for months, worried, and now they are finally at the site to get their shot in the arm! As a nurse for 42 years (how is that even possible? – I’m not really THAT old 😉, as I went to nursing school at 16, graduated at 19 and have had a varied career as nurse for most of my life! ) , it is not often that people are so happy to see you when they are going to get an injection – especially if they aren’t sick! That is not the case in the winter of 2021. On the 2 days I have volunteered to date, I was surprised to hear the number of people thanking me from start to finish. I am with each person (I keep wanting to say patient!) less than 5 minutes each, but I hear so many of their stories.
There are a scattering of firemen, police, healthcare workers, but primarily people over 65 – many are decades over that age, the group that is able to get the vaccines now. There are retired physicians and nurses in the crowd as well, and they too are filled with hope for the future because of the speed with which the vaccines were able to be developed. There was the gentleman who told me that his grandmother died in the flu pandemic of 1918, and how he wished they had had vaccines then for her- He was there getting the vaccine for her. There are several couples with the one having dementia – their partner saying that they have been so alone and lonely this past year and they are so hopeful that they can start to socialize in their retirement community. There are the ones that are afraid of needles but say that nothing would keep them from getting this one (although I did have a moment when I was sure one woman was going to pass out as she held her breath so long). There are those that talk about all of their health issues and say that they have been so afraid that they would get COVID; others who tell me about their depression over this past year because of being so isolated, and those that just want to feel free to visit with friends and neighbors- and a recurrent theme- “I just want to hug my grandkids”.
There are the questions almost all ask me right away- How do I know when to come for my second dose? Am I going to have side effects? How long will it be before I am immune to COVID? Will we have to wear masks? Can I go on vacation this summer? Will I get sick after the second dose as so many have? Of course, many of their questions I have little information on either. We are all learning as this pandemic, this surreal era, continues. Then without exception, they talk about how they are so excited to be getting this vaccine. They now have hope that things will soon go back to Normal- that they haven’t had hope for a year now and thought they wouldn’t make it through. They have hope that this 1cc of vaccine will bring them closer to seeing their grandchildren, that they will finally be able to leave their house, and to go places without being afraid it will put there lives at risk. They talk about how the past year has seemed like 10 years, a sentiment which we all feel.
Most of all they talk about the fact that this shot in the arm gives them Hope that we can all get back to Normalcy. So many ask me how long it will be to get back to normal – when I have the same question – but as we chat about their personal lives, their dreams for normalcy, their challenges – many can’t stop smiling, some are giddy, some get emotional, like the 78 year old man who tried but couldn’t contain his tears, saying he wanted to hug me and hoped that maybe by the end of the summer he could. And there is the woman who cried out dramatically that this is the beginning of the end of this awful pandemic.
The atmosphere in the tent, although very busy, is one of happiness… how can you not feel joy when you and your fellow nurses and support staff are giving people such hope. It was a profound feeling and I left my shift feeling hopeful after I received my second dose of vaccine. Once the person leaves the medical tent after receiving their vaccine, they are directed to the open air tent where they sit for 15-20 minutes to be monitored, followed by getting a card with their second dose appt in 28 days. I also received my first dose and this week my second dose on days I volunteered. So I too had to wait in the monitoring areas with probably a hundred people all in socially distanced seating. I too looked at the ‘crowd’ – something that we have not been a part of for a year anywhere! And feel that same hope. By the end of the year maybe we can be in small crowds without being afraid. Hugging family and friends, hearing a concert, going to a fair , or even just shopping and not being afraid…yes I too have hope…
Sharon Litwin, RN, MHA, HCS-D