So there I was standing out in the cold – miserable but happy.
My jacket was buttoned up to my nose on top of my mask.
My hood was up and my glasses were becoming a white screen of fog where my hot breath escaped into the chill.
In my pocket, my left hand wiggled into a glove, then sneaked out to hold my glasses away from my face.
It was the only way I could see whether the line was moving.
And deep inside me, as I stood shivering through the gusts of bitter wind, somewhere I was happy.
Because I was in line to be vaccinated against Covid-19.
Despite it all, I knew I was one of the lucky ones.
It had been a long journey to this place, the Brentwood Volunteer Fire Department. And not just in miles.
I had spent the better part of a week trying to find a place here in Western Pennsylvania where I could even get the vaccine.
On Sunday, a teacher I’ve worked with for 15 years left me a message that she was going to Bloomfield with her husband. She had heard Wilson’s Pharmacy was giving out the vaccine. Like me, her husband has a heart condition and so qualified for the shot.
In the Keystone state, only medical personnel, people 65 and older or those with certain health conditions have been prioritized to get the vaccine so far.
Of course, UPMC, the healthcare agency distributing the injections in the Pittsburgh area, has taken this to mean all their employees – even those who don’t interact with patients.
They can cruise up to nearly any hospital and get a dose.
The rest of us have to make an appointment somewhere else – if we can find one.
I sat up in bed trying to decide if I wanted to drive all the way to Bloomfield on the off chance that they’d have a shot with my name on it. Considering that it was about an hour away if I left right then and the message from my co-worker was about a half hour old, I doubted my chances.
But as I showered and the sleep left me, I started to think I might roll the dice.
However, when I called the pharmacy on my way out the door, I was told they had run out of the medication.
And for most of that week, this was the closest I got.
I went on-line every day trying to find somewhere to get the vaccine. I tried Giant Eagle, Rite Aide, Allegheny County, various pharmacies, etc. All nada.
Sometimes I had to keep a browser window on my computer open for hours just to be turned down. Sometimes a hopeful page would pop up asking for information, and I’d fill it all in only to get the same negative message.
It was so discouraging.
So was my job.
The school district where I teach has been on remote learning since November when an outbreak in multiple schools (but most notably in an entire kindergarten class) closed us down.
Now – for no discernible reason – school directors wanted to open back up.
Infections are still high throughout the county and the state. There is no justifiable reason to reopen except that decision makers are bored. That and they are tired of hearing people complain that we are taking too many precautions to protect kids. And those darn teachers and their all-powerful unions!
I knew I couldn’t go back to the classroom.
I hadn’t been back since March when we closed down the first time.
I have both a heart condition and Crohns disease. Both my cardiologist and gastroenterologist told me that if I got Covid it could be a death sentence.
My only choice was to stay home using sick days or get fully vaccinated before returning to the classroom.
I wanted to do the later. I wanted to be there for my students. But that was looking like an impossibility.
Frankly, I don’t think it’s safe for the kids even if I am vaccinated. But after almost a year of fighting with school directors, administrators and some angry parents, I was willing to concede the point. These are their kids, after all. If parents think it’s safe, that’s their choice.
Mine is much different.
Even though my home district is open, my daughter has been learning at the dinning room table throughout the crisis. Her pap pap and I (but mostly her pap) help her make sense of a terrible cyber curriculum day-in-day-out. Most of the time, he takes math and science. I take English and social studies.
We don’t do this because we think it’s the best way to learn. We do it because we love her and don’t want to put her life in jeopardy.
I had about given up on ever getting back to the classroom, myself, when my cousin, Lora, texted me.
Her family and mine used to be fairly close when we were kids, but I hadn’t really talked to her much in recent years.
“Hi Steve. I wanted to see if you were able to get a vaccine appointment for yourself. My sister-in-law has been helping people in [group] 1A get appointments, and I know she wouldn’t mind looking for you… I’m worried about you with your heart condition…”
I was struck dumb.
I remembered Lora as this skinny little girl who tagged along after my brother and me. We used to put on little plays in my grandmother’s basement. I gave her some of my stuffed animals when I grew out of them.
When she was a teenager we didn’t get along very well. It was my fault. I was jealous of the time she took from my mom.
Frankly, I was a jerk to her. I know that now, and I’d felt terrible about it long before I got this text.
But here she was now – a researcher at the University of Pittsburgh. She was no longer that little girl. She was no longer that annoying teen. She’s a grown woman with command of her field and the respect of her colleagues.
I’d already known that. What I didn’t know was that she had such a big heart. Big enough to encompass an asshole like me.
We texted back and forth and she gave me so many more avenues to explore to find a site to be vaccinated.
I think it was only a day later, maybe that very night that I got the email from Spartan Pharmacy that I had an appointment for the following afternoon.
I had signed up for Spartan’s waiting list before Lora contacted me. But she and her sister-in-law, Caity, knew I had an appointment almost before I did.
Lora says Caity is her “vaccine Angel.” I don’t think I’ve ever met her, but the two of them helped me through every step of the way.
I had to fill out a form before going to my appointment and the Website simply wouldn’t load. Too many people were probably trying to access it at the same time. Someone told me the next day that 15,000 people had signed up.
Lora and Caity sent me a copy by email an hour later.
I don’t see how I could have done any of this without them.
So the next day when I got to the Brentwood VFD, found one of the few available parking spaces and got into the long line in the bitter cold, I couldn’t really be upset by the discomfort of the situation.
Even when it started to snow, and my glove felt like it was almost nonexistent, I couldn’t get too down.
In about an hour or so, I knew I’d have the vaccine.
I had hope again – something that had been missing for far too long.
It wasn’t trouble free for those in line. Most of the people there were elderly. Many were in wheelchairs or had walkers.
One gentlemen fell on the cracked pavement and people from the crowd helped him back up. I remember his daughter kept asking him if he’d cracked his head.
But I was at the front of the line and entered the building then.
It was warm at least.
And the people there were very friendly.
Once inside, it didn’t take long at all before I was taking off my coat and rolling up my sleeve.
There was a slight pinch and that was it.
I gave them my paperwork, they gave me an appointment a month hence for my second dose and I was told to sit and wait for 15 minutes before leaving.
I had no side effects.
The next morning the injection site was a little sore but I’ve had worse bug bites.
And so here I am.
Some people worry about the vaccine because of how quickly it was developed, but not me.
I’ve seen the pictures and videos of our lawmakers and celebrities getting the shot. Even the disingenuous Covid deniers who claim the pandemic is all a hoax don’t let their “conviction” stop them from getting a dose.
That more than anything proves the vaccine’s veracity for me.
I know that once I get the second dose, I can still bring Covid home to those I love. But from what I’ve read, even if that happened it would be a weakened form of it.
There’s a lot of uncertainty – new strains of the disease that the vaccine may or may not protect against.
In a perfect world, we’d wait until the majority of people were as safeguarded as I am before getting on with everything. But we don’t live in a perfect world.
If anything, the virus has shown us how imperfect it is.
But it has also shown us the exact opposite – the power of kindness and love.
I get down about all that’s messed up in this world. I get depressed about all the missteps people have made dealing with this crisis.
And when that happens now, I try to think about my cousin – my sweet cousin, Lora.
There are people like her all over this country looking out for others.
There are people who are caring and don’t condition that feeling on what someone has done for them lately.
They just do what they can because it’s the right thing to do. Because they see the good and want to increase it.
I am so grateful for having this second chance – and it does feel like a second chance.
I am thankful, thoughtful and hopeful.
If there are people like Lora in this world, maybe there’s hope for all of us.
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