Feature photo credit: Mufid Magnun, via Unsplash
I am writing this on Sunday, and today I will receive my second dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine. Previous to vaccination, I was “high risk” of serious complications if I were to become infected. I am also White, financially comfortable, and privileged enough to have work that I can currently do from home. I’m not convinced that I should have been prioritized.
I have multiple immune disorders. Due to the first of them, I lived in the hospital for over 4 weeks when I was 24. During that month, I underwent four lung surgeries. They removed the middle lobe of my right lung because it had necrotized. I had severe infections in the pleural space between my lung and the rest of my trunk. My lung collapsed. At one terrifying point, I woke up on a respirator in the ICU, choking on my own sputum, unable to speak or ask questions to clarify what was going on.
Since these events, I have been on immunosuppressant medications off and on for years. Prednisone, chemotherapy drugs, and others, each with their own side effects and complications. I have been told by doctors that even off medications, I “should never assume that [I] have ever had a normal immune system.”
In the last two decades, I have developed at least 2 other disorders with varying degrees of life-threatening implications. I live my everyday life with the possibility that one of them will flare up and potentially do enough damage to put me back in the hospital. Any of my body systems might become involved. Kidney or liver failure is a real possibility. One of my conditions causes my airway to constrict more or less at random, making it difficult to swallow, and potentially, someday it may close off my ability to breathe.
I have lived with all of this threat to my life and well-being for nineteen years, and that is irregardless of COVID-19.
COVID-19 scares me. I’m afraid of becoming further disabled from yet another chronic condition that requires yet another round of trial and error, medications with their side-effects, and potential new limitations to my abilities. I am afraid of piling on more uncertainty into my life. I am terrified of waking up on a ventilator again. My fears are justified. I have a medical note from my doctor spelling out in stark and impersonal black and white that I am “at high risk of severe complications and hospitalization,” and therefore must be allowed to work from home for the “indefinite future.”
And still, from this perspective of fear and real danger, I wonder if I belong in this group of prioritized vaccination recipients. After all, I can work from home, and I have the support of my physician helping make that happen. My husband and I have enough resources to add ease and safety to our lives. We order groceries for pick-up. I have been able to buy and install a small gym in my garage to stay physically active. It isn’t fun being isolated, but I know I can survive ok for a handful more months without significantly increased discomfort. I’m not sure that is the case for many others with far less privilege than myself.
There are people whose work requires them to be in contact with the public. People who are at higher risk for complications because they have less access to healthcare. People of color, who are only about 20% of Oregon’s population, but are 50% of Oregon’s COVID cases. Folks experiencing incarceration and folks in congregate care facilities, both have been the worst-hit by this pandemic. I think these people are at least as deserving of early access to vaccines, but truly, I believe they should have been prioritized over someone like me.
There are stories of White Americans with resources driving to smaller communities and filling up their vaccine clinics. I suspect I know a woman who did this. It disgusts me, the selfishness of this sort of behavior. Those are the people that during the zombie apocalypse would throw you out of the truck in order to survive the hoard of walking dead pursuing you. That isn’t me; I am getting my shots earlier than most because of my medical records. I didn’t seek it out; my doctors sought me out.
I’m not saying all of this to be a hero. I’m not trying to earn points by impressing you with my compassion. I would love for you to ask questions, however, of your governments, to push for thoughtful leadership in a time of vaccine scarcity. I would love for all of us to sit with this discomfort and wonder what roles we play in perpetuating inqualities. So many of us are so afraid. It is reasonable, this fear, but fear isn’t the best place from which to make policy decisions for the greatest good. From that position, we will each do what is best for ourselves. I acknowledge, it is what I am doing. But I still recognize that what is best for me may not be what is best for us.
We have always been in this together. The safety of each of us is interdependent upon the safety of everyone else. We will only be able to return to “normal life,” when we have all been given the opportunity to be vaccinated. Protecting ourselves isn’t enough to actually make us safe. We see this as new COVID-19 variants spread around the globe. Each unchecked population creates an opportunity for the virus to change and complicate the world’s recovery. These results are not inevitable. We have choices we are making, individually and at the societal level, creating them.
I will go get my second shot today. It will be quite a relief. I already feel safer knowing I’ve had the first round. I’ve been told that in a month or so, I can expect to be as immune as anyone, with some caveats due to the unusual nature of the workings of my personal immune system. I don’t know, yet, if or how this might change how I interact with the world, but I know that it will feel good to feel safer and less afraid. I want all of you, and all of us, to enjoy that same feeling of security as soon as possible. This period of recovery was always going to be messy and imperfect. I hope that we all work to make it as fair and safe for as many people as possible.
Marjorie Hundtoft is a middle school science and health teacher. She can be found nursing her sore arm, picking up heavy things and putting them down again in Portland, Oregon.