Jennifer McCabe is a family physician at St. Michael’s Hospital and an assistant professor in the Department of Family and Community Medicine at the University of Toronto.
They were there for different reasons. A woman who was the lifeline for her frail elderly neighbors and a vaccine advocate who wanted a selfie of her injection to inspire her vaccine-hesitant friends. A police officer on the front lines. A cancer patient living with the threat of recurrence. A person who was well but felt an obligation to protect the community. Although the patients at the vaccination clinic had diverse backgrounds and stories, they were united in positivity and hope.
I completed cancer treatment weeks before the pandemic hit. I am therefore acutely aware of how those who are immunocompromised have spent a year in a state of of constant hyper vigilance. I am also a family physician; I have heard countless stories of the impact of the pandemic on my patients’ lives and I understand their great expectations of the SARS-CoV-2 vaccines.
With the approval of the AstraZeneca vaccine in Canada, family physicians were recruited to join the COVID-19 vaccination effort. When our St. Michael’s Hospital Academic Family Health Team put out a call for volunteers, I immediately wanted to be involved. Fortunately, I was chosen from a large group of volunteers to be a vaccinator, working alongside a talented group of physicians, allied health professionals and administrative staff.
The day before my shift, I was speaking with a patient on the phone regarding his test results. Our discussion touched on vaccinations, as it had with so many other patients over the past month. Although he was not eligible for our weekend clinic, he was delighted to hear that I would be involved in helping with vaccine administration. “Just think, you’ll be part of history in the making!” Could a mass vaccination clinic be considered a historical event? This patient’s observation prompted me to consider the significance of what we were embarking on.
Arriving for my shift, I was struck by the enthusiasm of my colleagues. From administrative staff registering patients, to nurses directing patient flow, to the pharmacist preparing endless vaccine syringes, to vaccinators learning how to use new technology to record the encounters, to physician leads providing support and trouble-shooting, to our Family Health Team lawyer and chiropractor monitoring the patients in the waiting area after injection, we worked tirelessly and collaboratively. Patients appreciated our efforts to answer their questions and to provide them with their long-anticipated vaccines. It was clear that both staff and patients wore smiles of genuine gratitude and optimism behind their masks. After a long day of vaccinations, I reflected with my colleagues on our experiences. In my family medicine career of over two decades, the mass vaccination clinic was among the most inspiring patient care experiences I have been involved in.
Prior to the vaccine clinic, pandemic fatigue was a reality for me. Constantly changing guidelines, endless e-mails and updates, and minimal contact with colleagues and patients in the clinic due to social distancing, were draining at times. The pandemic had been a source of grief for many of my patients. Some lost their jobs, others lost loved ones; children were separated from their friends. Although I listened and empathized, it was sometimes difficult to feel that I was making a real difference to patients who had struggled in ways I had never before encountered as a clinician. Juggling the needs of my family during homeschooling while trying to provide care over the phone, made some days feel as though I was just treading water.
Perhaps it was a coincidence that our first vaccine clinic was held on the vernal equinox – March 20, 2021 – but it felt like a shift to a season of hope. Not only were we vaccinating against COVID-19, we were injecting optimism for brighter days ahead. Giving the promise of a return to normal for our community while reaffirming the joy of pursuing a career in medicine was a truly transformational experience.
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