In this month’s Amazon Trail, Lee Lynch recounts her experience getting her first of two COVID vaccines, and recalls her childhood experience of receiving an experimental dose of Dr. Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine.
Now that President Biden and Vice President Harris are in office, I’ve been able to have my first COVID-19 vaccine shot. It was no big deal. I went to our county fairgrounds expecting to be injected through my car window, the way I was tested. I thank my lucky stars the test was negative. I’m grateful to the medical profession that persisted in making tests and vaccines available despite the disinformation and profiteering of our former leaders.
Turned out, the vaccines were administered in the same exhibit building that’s used for our winter farmers’ market, a very familiar and reassuring space. The six-foot tables that usually serve to display crafts or local mushrooms and goat cheeses were now place markers.
Two representatives of our Sheriff’s Mounted Posse, minus their mounts, stood at the door, masked and chatting with new arrivals. We weren’t exactly an unruly crowd — age 75 at the youngest — so there was little for them to do. Once inside, our temperatures were taken, we were sent along to show ID and turn in required paperwork. Some internet-averse or disabled people filled out that paperwork on site, assisted by caretakers and community helpers.
One half hour was allotted for each group to be vaccinated. Firefighters led the way to makeshift corrals, maybe twelve foot by twelve foot, and to inadequately distanced folding chairs. No matter, it’s in the nature of groups to group, and people knew each other so there was never a chance some would voluntarily social distance, despite the fact that they were there to prevent dying in a pandemic.
The firefighters then deposited us, one at each end of the tables. I spotted non-gay neighbors in front of me and we cheerfully visited — at a distance. They’ve since invited me to ride with them for our second shots. That could have been fun and memorable, I thought later, especially if we gave one another the virus while enclosed in a car.
Which brought me back to the first inoculation I remember. I was in elementary school when American schoolchildren became guinea pigs for Dr. Salk’s vaccine. We waited on line outside the Flushing, Queens P.S. 20 gymnasium, in enforced quiet, dozens of solemn, worried kids. Personally, I was terrified of being shut inside an iron lung and welcomed the chance to avoid that fate.
The COVID-19 vaccines have emergency authorization; the polio shots were experimental. Some children received the actual inoculation, others a placebo. We filed into the gym and stopped at little stations staffed by who-knew-who. I asked this time, and confirmed that RNs were giving the COVID injections.
As Polio Pioneers, we received pins and certificates (which many of us still have, including me). Mothers of pupils volunteered to comfort us. I lucked out with a mom who put her arms around me and held me close during my ordeal. If I hadn’t already been a dyke, I would have become one from that experience alone — what pain?
The more recent injection was painless. For about two days afterward I couldn’t lift that arm without great discomfort, but as vulnerable elders, we accepted the necessity of inoculation with stoicism. There was a nurse for each row of recipients so those in the back were able to watch for horrendous reactions from the procedure. There were none.
The last corral was the observation room where we waited thirty minutes, in case we needed an epi pen or ambulance. The firefighters roamed among us, smiling and joking with people they knew, checking on us all. Eventually, we crammed together on line to schedule appointments for our second shots.
As a seasoned Polio Pioneer, sixty-odd years later, it strikes me as funny that I felt a little proud, just as I had in grade school, to be part of this mass health effort. There’s a bond now, between my neighbors and myself, that we went through the unknown together, that we believed in the science and the medicine and did our patriotic duty to keep America safe.
Before my observation period ended, I took a seat at one end of a long bench and exchanged greetings with a courageous man perhaps 25 years my senior. As I watched the clock, I considered myself lucky, way back when, to have received the real polio vaccine rather than the placebo. In the present, I know I’m lucky to have reached the current vaccine eligibility cutoff age. And lucky to have outlived the willful mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Copyright Lee Lynch 2021. Photo: Lee Lynch’s Polio Pioneer pin, courtesy Lee Lynch.