“I Feel Fortunate and I Feel Blessed”

Christus St. Vincent begins vaccinating its front-line health care workers, who have been caring for COVID-19 patients throughout the pandemic

They've been on the front lines at Christus St. Vincent Hospital throughout the pandemic, taking care of people suffering from COVID-19 —sometimes watching them recover and sometimes losing them to the disease. Today, they became the first health care workers in New Mexico to receive Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine.

How did it feel?

"Like a regular shot," physician Rafael Garabis said, with "less pain than a flu shot," Ezekiel Sundown, an environmental services technician added.

Arms aside, the first five health care workers said they felt lucky. And they felt hopeful "that there's a light at the end of the tunnel," Dominick Armijo, the nurse manager in the hospital's COVID'19 "Frost" unit said.

Hope, indeed, was the prevailing sentiment.

"I feel fortunate and I feel blessed," Sundown said.

Christus had known for a few weeks it would be the first hospital in the state to receive the vaccine, and had been preparing to do so. Hospital leaders learned last night the vaccine would arrive today, and the anticipation was palpable at the hospital.

As staff learned they would be receiving the vaccine, many began arriving at the Vernick Conference Room to find out when they were scheduled. Hospital administrators told SFR they intended to vaccine 50 employees today and then continue vaccinating two groups per day for the next few days, working through the 975 dosages they've received (Update: Hospital spokesperson Arturo Delgado told SFR the hospital ended up giving out 112 vaccines today). Chief Medical Officer David Gonzales said earlier today he expects the doses will be sufficient to vaccinate all workers caring directly for COVID-19 patients. Another 975 will arrive in a few weeks for the follow-up shot.

Nurse Dana Morgan, who has been at the hospital for 18 years and on the Frost unit throughout the pandemic, had just learned a few hours ago she would be receiving a vaccine. She said she was a little nervous, but mostly excited.

"Especially for those of us that work up there, this is the opportunity to show everyone we're not afraid to get this vaccine and be one of the first," she said.  "There's a sense of hope today, especially for all of us who work on the COVID unit. The light in the tunnel is starting to be seen." Still, she emphasized, the community should keep in mind that "just because you get the vaccine doesn't mean the social distancing and the masks don't apply."

Until vaccines are more widely disseminated and taken, risk of contracting COVID-19 remains and the hospitals, Christus included, have been stretched thin.

The last few weeks have been particularly hard, nursing assistant Yoselin Lopez said, as she waited with Morgan, "an emotional rollercoaster."

"We thought the first surge was bad and then we kind of had a break and then the second surge has been unreal," Morgan added.

Shortly after 1 pm, pharmacy supervisor Jolene Archibeque-Schachtner walked the vaccine doses down the hall and into the conference room to scattered applause, and the first five recipients received them separately, with social distancing maintained throughout the proceedings.

The shots were quick and easy, all agreed, but "it could not have come fast enough," said Edith Danielson, a respiratory therapist who said she, like other respiratory therapists, has been working nonstop throughout the pandemic. Nonetheless, she said the arrival of the vaccine was a reminder that not only have health care workers been on the job tirelessly, so have the scientists who developed the COVID-19 vaccine in record time. Health care workers, she said, "can help by gaining the public's trust" and getting vaccinated.

Yvonne Cordova, radiology director at the hospital, said she was doing it to set the example for her staff, but also because the vaccine is "giving ourselves a future. I know my children are really sick of being at home. It's to save our community, to save our elderly, we have to do what's right."

Garabis said after working with COVID patients "for what seems like forever to us, we're really hopeful and we want to lead by example and show everyone how important this is going to be moving forward for this pandemic to come to an end."

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