High pitched alarms, low pitched beeps, the rhythmic inhale and exhale of the ventilator – those were the sounds in my emergency department one year ago. There were no kids running down the hall, no friends making light of their 50-something-year-old friend whose LeBron James delusions resulted in an ER visit and sutures, and no, not even worried family members.
Texas, like much of the country, was headed for a rough summer and even more brutal fall and winter. Those were also the days where we were grasping for hope – hydroxychloroquine, vitamins, and antivirals that might mitigate the impact of the awful, deadly COVID-19 disease. At that moment, the prospect of a vaccine and a chance at ending this pandemic seemed like a pipe dream.
We’ve come a long way since then, and, quite frankly, we have exceeded my wildest expectations. More than half of American adults with at least one shot, three vaccines approved, and a surplus of shots. I like where we are; I like it a lot when I think of where we were one year ago.
Don’t get me wrong. We have suffered immeasurable loss and mental trauma. It’s going to take a long time to process and grieve. But right now, it’s OK to take a breath and have some hope. And yes, even celebrate.
On the front lines today, we’re celebrating aspects of life, big and small. Now, instead of just the overwhelming sounds of ventilators, you can overhear optimistic conversations among staff about travel plans and extended weekend family time. Patients discuss discharge orders and when to follow up instead of end of life care.
As health care professionals, we are still exposed to COVID every day. But as we and our extended families have become vaccinated, we have gotten our lives back, without the constant threat of getting infected and passing the deadly infection to those we love most. Seeing the sickest of the sick, as my emergency room colleagues and I do every day, has gotten just a bit easier now that we can spend time with family again. That’s all thanks to vaccines.
Last week I took care of a patient who hurt her ankle and was worried it wouldn’t heal in time for a wedding she would soon be traveling to. After I gave her the good news that she had an ankle sprain and not a fracture, she shared with me how because of vaccinations, this would be the first time in 18 months she would get to see her family and go to a wedding that had been pushed back twice.
As I exit the room, the alarms are still there, but they fade into the background now that visitors are allowed and can chat with their loved ones.
As we peer into summer — synonymous with barbecues, sports, and music festivals — the things we love seem more possible than ever. The NBA is increasing arena capacities by having vaccinated-only sections, Lollapalooza just announced a 400,000 person music festival open to those vaccinated (or with a negative COVID test), and our favorite restaurants and bars are showing signs of pre-pandemic life again.
Of course, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows. Half of our population in the U.S. is still not fully vaccinated. Open Twitter or tune into any news network, and the conversations range from vaccine hesitancy to truly unbelievable conspiracy theories about vaccines. We have a lot of work to do to get the hesitant to understand that vaccines are safe and effective at preventing the serious illness and death from COVID-19 that I saw all too often over the past 14 months.
As those of us who are vaccinated are able to get back to safely visiting with family and friends and regain our sanity, we can’t forget that the gains we’ve made will only remain if we keep vaccinating. We must continue to make it easier for underserved communities to get vaccinated and answer the questions of those who are hesitant.
These conversations need to start from a place of what is possible for vaccinated individuals and what’s possible for our communities if enough of us are vaccinated to reach community immunity.
Let’s remember that the vaccine-hesitant are our friends, neighbors, and family members. Local, trusted doctors like me are talking to them to persuade them, but we need your help. Share your vaccine experience, the freedoms and joys it unlocked for you, and what you hope it does for them. That will be the difference between a summer that looks “normal” and one that is filled with fear and uncertainty.
Let’s do this America. Let’s open up in (x) days.
Owais Durrani is an emergency medicine resident.
Image credit: Shutterstock.com