During medical school, I lived one summer in Ghana and spent a day helping a nurse give vaccinations to children in a remote part of the country. We set off in the dark and had traveled several hours when our driver pulled off the dirt road. “Why did we stop?” I asked, knowing we were still hours from our destination.
“Wait a minute,” the nurse explained. And then, as the sun came up, a young woman carrying a baby on her back emerged from the trees. She unwrapped the child, the nurse readied immunizations, and then injected the baby. After a few words, the mother returned the baby to her back and disappeared into the early morning light.
I was stunned. “How did you know she would be here?” I asked, and the nurse explained they had made the appointment months before and that the woman — who lived in a community without electricity or even a clock — had walked all night through the bush to keep the appointment. “She has seen children die from these diseases,” the nurse continued. “She wants her baby to live.”
Over the years, I sometimes share this story when talking with parents about immunizations. For the young Ghanaian mother, the decision to vaccinate her child was not a choice between the danger of contracting an illness versus the possibility of side effects from the injection. It was a choice between life and death. She had seen enough measles and polio to know that walking alone all night to vaccinate her child was worth the risk.
I thought of this woman most recently when I got my own vaccine for COVID-19. In addition to being an ER doctor, I am also a single mother with aging parents. After taking care of sick and dying people for the last 10 months, the risk that I might contract COVID-19 and bring it home far outweighs any concern I have about side effects.
But I had them all. My arm ached and my whole body hurt. I also had a low-grade fever and woke up one night in a cold sweat. These symptoms were not an allergic reaction, but a signal my immune system was responding to the vaccine. And I would have gladly endured worse to avoid what I have witnessed patients suffer in the last year.
But despite my knowledge of COVID-19, I understand some people’s reluctance to get the vaccine. Taking a new vaccine can feel like a risk — especially for minorities and people of color.
Knowledge about what it is like to get the vaccine may help allay concerns. The most worrisome response is an allergic reaction called anaphylaxis. This rare complication happens immediately after receiving the injection and is treatable with epinephrine and antihistamines. Clinics keep these medications on hand and observe people for 20 or 30 minutes to keep patients safe.
Other side effects, like the ones I experienced, respond to rest, Tylenol and ibuprofen. While unpleasant, my own symptoms did not stop me from caring for my children or celebrating the holidays.
For people who still have reservations about the vaccine, talking with those of us who have received it might be helpful. Talking to people who have had COVID-19 can also provide clarity.
Finally, considering the way contracting COVID-19 affects day-to-day life also helps. COVID-19 can cause severe illness and death, but even a mild case can disrupt life and lead to loss of income. Vaccines provide protection not just from disease, but from these disruptions. And as more people get vaccinated, schools, hospitals and churches can stay open — and the economy can continue to grow.
Before that Ghanian mother left us to begin her long walk back back home, she and the nurse scheduled another meeting for the baby to receive its next round of immunizations. I was back in school by the time of their appointment, but have no doubt the mother was waiting there at sunrise with a growing baby on her back.
I receive my second dose of the vaccine next week. Reports are that side effects from the second dose are more severe than the first. I am still eager to get it. And as I make the 30 minute drive to my appointment, I will remember the young woman in Ghana — and the difficulty she endured to keep her child safe from diseases that are sometimes mild but that she also knew could kill.
Marion Bishop is an emergency medicine physician who works in northern Utah. Her views are her own. You can find more of her writing and learn about her ER experience during the pandemic at marioncbishop.com.