Coronavirus Chronicles: For health care workers, vaccination brings some relief, hope


Peter Zyniewicz, an emergency room nurse, has worried he’ll bring COVID-19 home to his wife, children or their grandparents.

Edmonds resident Peter Zyniewicz received his second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine last week, a milestone of hope after witnessing so much tragedy.

“It’s a little like when you’re younger and you wake up to find Christmas presents under the tree,” said Zyniewicz, an emergency room nurse. “I can’t believe it’s finally here.”

Over the past year, Zyniewicz has held the hands of dying COVID-19 patients. At home, he’s dreamed of the people who struggled to breathe, and woke gasping for air himself. Throughout it all, he’s worried any accidental exposure could impact his wife, children and their grandparents.

With both available two-dose vaccines more than 90 percent effective at preventing the virus, vaccination brings some relief for the community’s front-line workers like Zyniewicz. While the journey is far from over – and they still plan to protect themselves and their loved ones – vaccination has carved out a moment of optimism amid the pandemic’s ceaseless grind.

“It’s that feeling of finally starting to see a light,” he said.

Peter’s Story: Exhaustion and persistence

Peter Zyniewicz wearing his personal protective equipment.

As the pandemic stretches to the year mark, Zyniewicz vacillates between acceptance and dread. With dozens and dozens of COVID-19 patients filling hospital beds, the virus has become a fixture of his daily work.

“On the other hand, I’m still terrified to bring it home to my family or even give it to a stranger,” he said.

Day in and day out, Zyniewicz and his colleagues persist, donning their gowns, visors, masks and gloves.

Zyniewicz has resigned himself to the countless consequences of this new normal. It’s not just the indentations from the tight N95 masks, the abrasion that marks his nose or the jaw aches from the tight seal. It’s also the back pain from not removing his protective gear to drink water during a long shift. And, it’s his young son knowing he can’t hug dad until he scrubs clean all evidence of the day.

There is no such thing as a sealed social bubble for health care workers, who routinely encounter COVID-19 patients. Even with the right protective gear, mistakes can happen. He has worried a tiny misstep might allow the virus entry.

Now, vaccination helps with that anxiety. After the second dose kicks in, his own health will likely be protected, though Zyniewicz still wants to keep everyone else safe. Scientists are still investigating whether vaccinated individuals can transmit the virus if they’re exposed.

Glenn’s Story: Keeping family safe

Now that Glenn Mahoney, a physician assistant, has received his vaccination, he feels more at ease walking into a patient’s room, even if he’s not fully prepared with PPE.

As an emergency room physician assistant, Glenn Mahoney has always accepted he is at risk for contracting patient infections.

“It’s an occupational hazard,” he said.

With his asthma, though, the risk of COVID-19 was worrisome for his own health. Mahoney was also concerned about unknowingly passing the virus to his family and elderly parents. His parents, who have underlying health conditions, moved to Edmonds to be involved in their grandchildren’s lives – and help with childcare. Now, these interactions present a health risk he can’t ignore.

“Every time I see them and they’re in our house or around my children, they have the possibility of being exposed,” he said. “Knowing how badly COVID can affect patients, I worry…. I can visualize patients that are struggling to breathe and have to be placed on ventilators.”

Mahoney received the second vaccine dose last week, a “ray of light” amid a year of struggles for health care workers nationwide: insufficient staffing, personal protective equipment (PPE) shortages, inadequate patient beds—and the dread of walking into a room not knowing whether a patient is infectious.

“And, knowing you could bring that home to your family,” he said.

Mahoney makes sure to wear full protective gear for patients who are clearly COVID-positive or under investigation. But there are plenty of others who come in for other ailments, such as chest pain or a joint ache, who later test positive. Afterward, he worries he might not have protected himself enough.

With the vaccine, he now feels more at ease walking into a patient’s room, even if he’s not fully prepared with PPE.

Mahoney experienced one day of a sore arm with the first vaccine and no side effects for the second.

As the immune response kicks in, many people do report side effects for a few days. A sore arm is common, and many experience flu-like symptoms such as body aches, fever or fatigue. A small percentage feel bad enough to stop daily activities for one to two days. And while adverse reactions are rare, there have been some cases of an allergic reaction called anaphylaxis. People recovered from this in a day or two.

For Mahoney, the advantage of protection far outweighed any temporary discomfort, he said.

Mary’s Story: Uncertainty and decision

Mary Hurt, who registers patients entering the emergency department, researched the vaccine extensively before receiving it.

Like many on the front lines, Edmonds resident Mary Hurt has experienced the exhaustion of the pandemic.

“When we started to hear about the possibility of a vaccine, that felt like a glimmer of light at the end of this really long tunnel,” said Hurt, who gathers patients’ information when they enter the emergency department.

Even so, the decision to vaccinate wasn’t a simple one.

Hurt had always welcomed the flu shot and other vaccinations. But this time, there was a lot of misinformation circulating the Internet and generating fear.

“I almost bought into the fake information,” she said. “It started to make me second guess.”

She researched and researched some more. Then, she stepped back and considered her firsthand experience with COVID-19.

Any risk from the vaccine’s side effects would be dramatically lower than the risk of COVID. The decision became clear.

“I know this is real,” she said. “I see people come in, people losing family members.”

Ultimately, she felt good about the vaccine – and the hope that it might lead to way out of the pandemic, she said. But even though she personally feels less anxiety, that’s tempered by a sense that “normal” is still far away.

“I feel we still have a long road ahead so that’s kind of dreary,” she said. “But positivity and optimism are good for your health so that’s something I’m trying to tap into.”

Luke’s Story: A scramble for the vaccine

Luke Van de Krol, a charge nurse, was so eager to receive the vaccine that he drove to Arlington after an overnight shift.

Edmonds resident Luke Van de Krol, a charge nurse at an inpatient facility, was among the last health care workers to receive the vaccine. He couldn’t wait. As he watched colleagues in different areas of medicine post pictures of their vaccines, he wondered when it would be his turn.

Van de Krol learned of his chance while he was working a 12.5-hour overnight shift. He could receive the vaccine the next day, in the window of free time before his next overnight shift. The only catch: the clinic was in Arlington and he’d be giving up his post-shift sleep.

“I thought, I don’t care if I don’t sleep at all, I’m getting it,” he said.

As it turns out, he was able to schedule vaccination in the late afternoon, allowing him to rest beforehand.

Van de Krol had taken a “social media fast” because the misinformation online had been frustrating to handle. He reemerged, though, and posted a picture with his Band-Aid. He wanted to extend an open invite for vaccine-related questions. People were mostly curious about which vaccine he got (Moderna) and whether he had any side effects (just a sore arm).

While Van de Krol isn’t working directly with COVID-19 patients, he knew that working as a nurse could lead to exposure, especially with community rates climbing.

“It has been like a ticking time bomb,” he said.

Vaccination is helping ease that anxiety as he and his colleagues breathe a sigh of relief.

“I’m just looking forward to others getting vaccinated as well so we can collectively move toward the new normal,” he said.

— By Kellie Schmitt

This article is part of an ongoing series exploring the impact of coronavirus on the life, work and health of Edmonds residents. If you or someone you know has a story to tell, please email us at myedmondsnews@gmail.com. For other stories in this series, click here.

 





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