Yes I received my first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine on Wednesday, as soon as the vaccination opening at my hospital opened. That blow triggered a countdown in my head:
- A standard 15 minutes to watch out for allergic reactions to the vaccine.
- Twenty-one days until I get another dose.
- Then another seven days for the main event, the show we’ve all been waiting for: 95% efficiency.
Part of me felt relieved. The end of a long chapter of global suffering finally seemed at hand. But the other part of me felt a new incarnation of fear. As we approach the goal, how long will it take for people to be saved?
I became a doctor seven months ago at the height of the first deadly wave of the pandemic when time was of the essence – so much so that I finished medical school early to help with an intensive care unit at a New York City hospital. Now I ask myself: “Can I go another 28 days without getting infected?” And in the meantime, how many people will die in the meantime while waiting for the dose of vaccine reserved for my hand? “
It’s on my mind these days. The minutes I spend with one patient seem taken away from another. And when I ask people about coughing, pain, or shortness of breath, I need to know when they started, whether they come or go, whether they are worse in the morning or at night. Their timing is important. Some diseases, such as Covid-19, can manifest almost overnight. Others, such as diabetes, heart failure and cancer, need a lot more time before they occur.
Sometimes I wonder, in the meantime, does my patient’s illness start when I became a doctor? Or maybe it started earlier, on the first day of medical school? Did it take shape when the idea of becoming a doctor first inspired me as a boy? How long do the illnesses of my patients wait for them to meet me and how long do I prepare for them?
Much digital ink has been spilled at an “unprecedented pace” in the development of these vaccines, which has both been a source of national pride and a cause for concern for those hesitant about hasty injections. Some people want to wait and see. They want more time.
But these vaccines date back to the early 2000s with the SARS vaccine research program and were perfected after Saudi Arabia’s first reports of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), a second cousin of Covid-19. And the science that supports them was established even earlier, with an understanding of mRNA and ribosomes and, even further, with the notion of DNA as a precursor to proteins – long before I was born.
On the first day of the doctor, all my patients had Covid-19. Most were intubated; some spent months on the fan. He woke up a little. Among the few who did it with their fans, some experienced prolonged delirium, and it took days for the muscles to retrain for speech.
“It’s time,” said one of my patients, the first words he whispered. “It’s time,” he repeated, “to die.”
The Covid-19 unit in our emergency department is recharging. Just a few weeks ago, one doctor was enough to provide him with crucial care assistance, but the influx of patients is outpacing us. We need help with the vaccine. Vaccines are the ultimate game.
I feel deep gratitude to the thousands of people who have participated – and continue to participate – in vaccine trials. They risked their health and gave their time to provide a measure of safety to those, like me, who benefit from the Covid-19 vaccine. In the auditorium where I received the bullet, I glanced for a moment at a time when Covid-19 would feel archival like the flu of 1918, because so few of our lives would resemble it. It will be a time we almost don’t think about anymore.
That time is coming. I’ll count down.
Adam Lalley is a first-year emergency medicine resident at Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn, New York.