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HCMC nurse: ‘The vaccine has given us some hope’

December 29, 2020

This community reporting project documents the coronavirus pandemic by recording the personal stories of Minneapolis residents and workers whose daily lives are in a state of flux. All interviews are conducted over the phone, and conversations are edited for length and clarity.

Jennifer Vongroven, bedside nurse, HCMC

Now I have the first half of the vaccine; I just got the shot yesterday. I had a little fever this morning and felt a little cruddy, but two Tylenol took care of everything.

It stated on one of the handouts that people who’ve had COVID within 90 days could consider waiting to get the vaccination. It has been over 60 days since my exposure. I opted to get the vaccination because it’s different for everybody — for some, the antibodies have barely lasted a month. I decided to air on the caution considering where I work.

The hospital initially had the highest-risk employees scheduled to get their shots first, then it went to people with the highest exposure: people in the viral clinic, people working in the ICU with ventilators — anyone working in those units from housekeeping staff up to nurses and doctors. I thought the hospital did a great job making sure they covered all people involved.

Everybody has been really excited about the vaccine. So many smiles, so many Facebook posts with the vaccine selfie. Everybody is super happy. At the beginning we were still fresh, we had so much wonderful support from the general public, but now we’re burnt out and we’re short staffed. The vaccine has given us some hope.

We have had at least three patients who have come into the hospital COVID negative, were exposed here by visiting family members and later tested positive. This becomes a risk to all staff, since we don’t wear our N95s in non-COVID rooms. So the vaccine makes it a little easier to come into work knowing we have that extra layer of protection for us and for those we love.

I am more excited about this vaccine than any holiday. Working this weekend was hard because of the people who died on Christmas from COVID with no family next to them. In two different situations, families were on Zoom conferences with patients when they passed. It’s so hard for us because we get attached to these people. We’ve seen them when they came in. We watched them get intubated. We know who they are as individuals. We know them through their families. And it’s so hard to watch them die.

In a sense, you can say: It’s all in a day’s work, it’s part of what we do. But so much of this is so damn preventable that it is heartbreaking. What’s extra hard is that we’re holding up these iPads so they can do Christmas with their families on Zoom, and we look and there are huge family gatherings happening with many people. And I’m thinking, “How many of you are going to be in the ICU in a couple of weeks?” We know it’s going to surge again post holidays, and we’re just waiting for it.

The trends go up and down depending on the week, but we already know that another surge is coming. In my hometown of La Crosse, Wisconsin, a middle-aged man attacked a bartender who asked him to put on a mask. We’re still dealing with this stuff, and that’s mentally exhausting, it’s physically exhausting, it’s emotionally exhausting.

This vaccine has given us a boost of energy, but everything is going to continue until the majority of the general public has been vaccinated. If you can’t stay vigilant for yourself, do it for me, do it for my family, do it so the staff doesn’t have to watch patients die and suffer. Just push a little bit longer.

My family is safe and healthy. They’ve been good about limiting exposure, but I can tell they’re going a little stir crazy. I know it was difficult not getting together for the holidays, but the important thing is staying alive and healthy. This too shall pass.

Since I got COVID, I’ve been dealing with a little bit of a shortness of breath and lasting nausea. So I’ve mostly just been going to work and coming home. I did visit some friends — I felt safe with my antibodies and it was much needed.

My friends have been so supportive. I haven’t been in the holiday spirit this year, but they gave me a giant Christmas surprise. They decorated my porch, they made a cake, they flamingoed my lawn, they got a ’90s rock star, Gunnar Nelson, to send me a personal video message. They saw me struggling, and they came together.

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