As early as February 2020, the rumblings of an oncoming pandemic began to hit the satellite health center at Lynn Vocational Technical Institute, where I worked as a primary care pediatric nurse practitioner. It started as worried discussion about the news coming from overseas and COVID-19 cases reaching New York, which turned into speculation of when the wave would hit us and how bad it would be.
Then all the schools shut down and I relocated to the main site of the Lynn Community Health Center. I was filled with tense dread. Reports of hospitals becoming overburdened and cities going into lockdown were increasing, but I also felt a small amount of nervous anticipation: This is what I was trained for, to be able to help in a time of need.
Last spring, when the pandemic’s chaos was new, we worried about not knowing how the virus spread. I performed COVID-19 testing, including in triage to ensure patients were screened to go to the proper areas of the health center, and in urgent care to find possible coronavirus patients.
We worried about mask shortages and the best way to store our N95 mask—if we were lucky enough to have one. We worried about our sick patients when they asked how they should get food if they were supposed to be in quarantine. We worried about our teenage patients when they asked about how to march safely in a Black Lives Matter protest. We worried about each other, about how our coworkers were dealing with the stress of a historic pandemic and the stress of political and social unrest, and the anger that came with that.
I worried when a coughing, flailing patient knocked off my mask—would those few seconds of exposure be enough to give me the virus? I’d spend the next two weeks anxiously wondering if symptoms would appear; thankfully, they haven’t yet. As a person of Asian descent, I worried that an angry patient might spew xenophobic comments, or worse, follow me later to continue the onslaught of slurs and ignorant questions. That happened more than once.
I worried about exposing my parents. So, Sunday lunch with the family became a plate of dumplings my dad placed on the indoor porch where I sat, which I took only after he closed the sliding glass door separating it from the dining room.
Even though the pandemic highlighted the biggest problems in our society and our health care system, it also gave us the opportunity to lift each other up. In Lynn, community health workers sewed hundreds of masks to give out at the start of the pandemic when masks were in short supply. Local distillers made and donated hand sanitizer that we gave out in coronavirus care packages to our patients. While more people went to shelters and food pantries, others donated clothes and food. We came together to make this new normal a little more bearable.
After receiving both vaccine shots recently, I felt an enormous wave of excitement and relief. I feel a little bit safer when I see patients and family. My parents have also received the vaccine, so now I can visit without a glass door separating us. I tell every patient I see about the positives of getting the vaccine, taking the time to dismantle the YouTube and Facebook conspiracies my teen patients and their parents often believe. I have given presentations in the community to teen groups and adult ESL learners to spread the word that the vaccine is safe. As I vaccinated one of my fellow coworkers, we talked about that sudden rush of relief and joy.
Recently, my last patient of the day was an older gentleman who was so excited to get his vaccine that he asked another nurse to record him getting his shot, so he could post it on Facebook. He told us that as a religious leader in a minority community, he wanted everyone to know the vaccine was safe and that it was time for us all to band together and go on the offense against the pandemic. After a year of worry, there’s a little bit of hope upon which to build in 2021.
This opinion piece was originally published in the Winter 2021 issue of the IHP Magazine.