After Months of Trauma, Vaccinated Health-Care Workers Welcome a Surprising Emotion: Hope

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01/22/2021

Photo: Rachel Wisniewski/For the Washington Post

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For weeks, the long-term care facility where Linda Green works as a nurse looked to her like a battlefield hospital, swathed in plastic drapes separating the ill from the uninfected. The coronavirus ripped through the western Maryland facility like wildfire at the end of 2020, deepening Green's fear that she, at 73, might bring the virus home to her husband, who is 84.

Then she received a coronavirus shot. It felt like any other vaccination, leaving her with mild upper arm soreness but no other physical side effects. The emotional effects, however, were remarkable. Even thinking of the vaccine, Green said two weeks after receiving the Moderna shot, makes her practically "cry with relief" as she pictures a brighter future for herself and those she cares for.

"Now, when I go in and I'm putting on my N95, I think, 'This may only be for a few more weeks,' " said Green, though she expects even after that to continue wearing a surgical mask around residents, who have also been vaccinated. "We won't have to wear face shields, and ah, it will be so nice."

One month after a New York nurse received the first U.S. vaccination, the hope inspired by the vaccines' swift development and approval has given way in many quarters nationally to the distressing reality of a slow and sometimes calamitous rollout. But for some health-care workers who have been vaccinated after toiling for nearly a year under exhausting, dangerous, and sometimes terrifying conditions, the dominant feeling, they say, is profound and enduring relief, even amid a surge of covid-19 cases.

In interviews, health-care workers described a surprising new sense of levity and energy as they go about work that, in many places, continues to be overwhelming. Some spoke of elation and confidence that they can now offer better care. Many said the vaccine had renewed their optimism after months during which depression and burnout in their field soared and the virus killed an estimated 3,000 people in their ranks.

"Sometimes, I feel like I walk around with a biohazard sign on me," said Danielle Gonzalez, 39, an intensive care unit nurse in Eugene, Ore. After one dose of vaccine, she said, she already feels like a small load has been lifted. After she gets her second, she expects, "I will feel less contagious . . . It'll be nice not to be patient zero."

In 2020, her work became more stressful than she ever imagined, Gonzalez said. The tiresome donning and doffing of personal protective equipment that looks like a spacesuit. The inability to respond as quickly as usual to patient alarms. The anxiety that any newly admitted patient may test positive for the coronavirus.

The vaccine, Gonzalez said, feels like an unseen additional layer of PPE — one that makes the prospect of once again hugging her parents, both of whom are over 65, feel more real. Before the pandemic, she had dinner with them once a week. They're the kind of parents who always hug her the same way: "Like they haven't seen me in forever," Gonzalez said. "And I cannot wait."

For Jane Tucker, the first dose has already been liberating: She stopped wearing a stifling N95 mask for her entire shift at the Colorado Springs hospital where she works as a women's health nurse. Now, she sticks with a surgical mask for most of her shift, strapping on the more confining N95 only when interacting with patients who test positive for the virus.

Before the coronavirus hit, Tucker, 45, rarely wore any sort of mask. After, although only some of her patients have the virus, Tucker opted to wear an N95 all day — removing it only when outside or alone in a break room, going hours without drinking water — because she so feared exposing her two children, who have autoimmune diseases. She worried about close contact with colleagues, who she knew were not as careful as she was outside work. She covered her hair. She sometimes wore goggles.

"It feels like kind of a war type of situation," Tucker said. "You're putting on all your armor and trying to avoid this enemy that is really frightening and silent."

Even then, Tucker said she constantly worried her PPE wasn't enough. She had what she called "phantom covid symptoms," worrying that every cough or sore throat was a sign she'd been infected. She prides herself on being the sort of nurse who sits on the bed, chatting with patients. But she found herself shortening visits, knowing each passing minute increased her exposure.

Tucker knows the vaccine doesn't offer 100 percent protection. Still, having gotten it has felt surprisingly freeing.

"I feel totally more optimistic, feeling more like it's not this personal threat," Tucker said. "I feel like, if things became really bad again, I would be happy to volunteer to help. It kind of changes my mind-set about my personal risks. It empowers me to be able to give better care to my patients."

Mary Brock broke into tears of joy when she was vaccinated on Dec. 29. Sobbing, she texted her family to share her happiness. She gets choked up talking about it even now.

None of her 32 years as a nurse practitioner had been as difficult as 2020. For most of it, Brock was the sole provider at an urgent care clinic in Hartford, Conn., seeing 40 to 50 patients a day. Most came for coronavirus tests, and some days, 40 percent tested positive. Brock, 52, said she relied on a donated N95 mask, hoping it protected her when entire families of coronavirus-positive patients crammed in an exam room.

The anxiety was so encompassing that on her days off, Brock sometimes could not get out of bed. Last month, she took a new job in a hospital where she doesn't treat coronavirus patients. That helped enormously, she said — but getting the vaccine took her relief to a new level.

"I'm scheduled for my second dose, and I'm like, 'Oh man, it's going to feel so good,' " Brock said. "I haven't been to the dentist because I was such a risky patient. I haven't gotten my hair cut because I didn't want to put anybody at risk. I'm looking forward to a couple of weeks after my second vaccine to do all that stuff again."

For Carmen Hazera, 64, a respiratory therapist who treats coronavirus patients in the Tampa Bay region, the relief of being vaccinated is mixed with wariness about how much protection she will get from the shot. She's not making plans yet or changing her routines. But Hazera, who felt a year ago like she was winding down her career, is staying on the job.

The past year has been grueling and scary. On one shift, she was sprayed with blood and secretions while suctioning the lungs of a terribly ill ICU patient. The sadness and hopelessness in the units where she works only seem to be growing, she said.

"I'll feel better," after the second dose, Hazera said. "It's awful to even contemplate not having it, but so much of the world won't have it for a long time."

Green, the long-term care nurse, is focusing for now on those in her world who have received the vaccine — not just herself, but the residents of the facility where she works.

Visitors were prohibited last spring, and the residents' lifelines to humanity — the staff — have been garbed in alien protective gear. Green said she felt deeply sad that despite precautions, the virus made its way to a population that had been so cut off from the outside.

"You can see the decline that happens with social isolation in elderly people. You can't say they're dying from covid, but they're definitely not thriving," Green said. "I would tell the residents that could understand . . . 'Guess what? When we get that vaccine, our doors can open, and you can have family with you again.' "

Green has also informed her 11-year-old granddaughter, whom she hasn't hugged since last year, that she can plan a family vacation. The girl has already made a five-day itinerary for a trip to Longboat Key, Fla. They are tentatively penciling in the trip for June if it seems safe then.

"This is how we're coping — looking to the future," Green said. "We're trying to hope."

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