Dr. Cara Agerstrand, Pulmonologist and Director of the Medical ECMO Program at New York Presbyterian, was one of the first health care workers in New York City to receive the newly rolled-out COVID-19 vaccine. Below, she describes what it was like to get the vaccine, and what the development means for the future of our health.
The last ten months have been completely unreal. If you were to ask me, this time last year, to imagine what we’d go through in 2020, I never would have believed it.
The complete tragedy of this pandemic was inescapable, especially in New York in the spring. We felt very blindsided by the whole thing. It was COVID in Wuhan, then in Italy, and then before you know it, it was in New York. It seemed like overnight, the world had completely changed.
At the end of March, I panicked and bought a bike in case the subways shut down so I would still be able to get to the hospital. It was so surreal, seeing these completely deserted streets, and being able to cross against the light in midtown Manhattan in the middle of a weekday. Every place in New York City was silent.
I remember starting one week in the ICU, towards the middle of March. We had maybe two COVID patients there. By the time I finished the week, our ICU was filled with COVID patients. There were so many other ICUs that became operating rooms because of the tidal wave of critically ill patients coming in. Overnight, we had to develop and enact entirely new systems of healthcare delivery. We had to train other doctors to take care of patients with severe respiratory failure. We had to create ICU beds out of operating rooms from what were once hospital floors. There were field hospitals erupting in Central Park. It just became all encompassing.
The anguish and stress of the spring is still vivid in my memory, which is why I was over-the-moon excited when I heard that I would be one of the first to receive the vaccine. I almost didn't even tell anyone about it because I was so afraid it wouldn't happen. It was such a remarkable occasion for such a mundane activity. I mean, I get a flu vaccine every year. After everything we've been through this year, this was the beginning of the end of this pandemic. It was a very humbling experience. What a contrast to the tragedy and despair to now have this bright beacon of hope in the form of the vaccine.
The vaccine truly did not hurt at all and only took a few seconds. I felt completely fine afterwards, with plenty of energy and no side effects. Many of my friends and colleagues have received the vaccine and they reported the same. A few of them had a slightly sore arm, but that was all. Mostly, we were just so happy and grateful to be vaccinated, knowing that we were taking this next, important step to end this horrible pandemic.
This vaccine is going to become our most important tool to fight this disease. In addition to everything that we have been doing—social distancing, wearing masks, etc.—this vaccine is the next step that everybody needs to take to end this pandemic. With an estimated 95% efficiency rate and extremely low levels of minor side effects, it's really effective. Every single person I know from around the country who has gotten the vaccine has had no side effects. Not even fevers or chills, maybe just a sore arm for a day or two and that was it.
It's important to remember that the people developing this vaccine are scientists who are in this field to help people and do good. Their goal is to get everyone out of this pandemic the same way that doctors and nurses are. This vaccine has gone through rigorous safety and testing protocols.
It's really remarkable that within a year of us even hearing the word “COVID-19” that we’ve developed a way out of this. But we will only end this pandemic if people continue to do whatever they can to help stop the spread of this disease and that includes getting vaccinated.
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