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Illustration by Chelsea O'Byrne

When I began working at a COVID-19 vaccination clinic, I promised myself – in an attempt to feel positive about my work and prevent burnout – to write down my favourite moment of each day.

Working at a vaccine clinic, you meet the excited, the elated, the indifferent, the cautious, those with a fear of needles, fear of germs, fear of touch. You meet the energetic, the tired, the sad and the rushed. You meet the young and the old, the caregivers, the expectant parents, the new parents, the grandparents and great grandparents. You meet those with plenty and those in need, the housed and the unhoused. From one vaccination to the next, you see the city and each person contributing to its functioning in their own important way.

Though my exchanges with clients are brief, I treasure them deeply and I do what I can to make the moments substantial and impactful. A prompt to take a deep breath before the jab, a hand on the shoulder encouraging the person to relax, a calmness to my voice – I can’t give people a lot of my time but I can give the gift of my unadorned presence for a few moments. Here are some of my notes:

The clients that remind me of my family

I have great admiration for individuals living with special needs and their families. Growing up I participated in my brother Nicky’s extensive care. Our big family cared for him with absolute love and adoration and treasured the blissful moments he brought to our lives. But caring for a family member with special needs can be challenging.

When a parent with a teenage child with special needs approached my vaccination station, I tried my best to convey a sense of understanding and appreciation for their effort to get all the way to the vaccination site – leaving the house is often a tricky multi-step process. Although my interaction with this family was all of five minutes, I felt honoured to be able to provide them with what I hoped was sensitive care. The parent was worried that side effects from the vaccine would impact their ability to care for their child. I couldn’t change anything but I could sympathize and strategize as I imagined my own parents navigating similar situations with my brother.

Once the youngster had received their vaccine, they calmed and thanked me sweetly, “Thanks, pal.” “You are very welcome bud,” I responded.

The clients who cared

After vaccinating a couple, just as they left my station, they asked me if I could explain how Bill 124 – a piece of legislation in Ontario that limits wage increases for certain health care workers – would affect me as a nurse. I was shocked that someone not in the health care profession would take interest in this issue. I was grateful to know nurses are on the minds of Canadians.

The couple took a few moments to thank me and my colleagues for our service. A thank you always goes straight to my heart and gets me through a hard day. I hope I express enough gratitude when someone thanks me. Thank you for saying thank you.

The kid who swore, and got away with it

A child arrived with their parent for the child’s vaccination. Even though my vaccination site was a long way from their home, they came here as they had previously because the parent remembered the directions – their English was limited. When I asked the child if they got to have a treat on the way to their vaccine – thinking they’d been lucky enough to have had French fries or a doughnut on their big adventure downtown – they happily told me about the warm lunch their parent had prepared at home. As I showed the parent the vaccine label so they could provide informed consent, the kiddo looked at the syringe sheepishly and said “[expletive] is about to get real!” The parent and I grinned and locked eyes. In any other situation, an eight-year-old was risking punishment by blurting out a swear word like that. But on this day it was perhaps the most honest and joyful comment one could make.

The littlest expert

Two young siblings arrived with their parent for their first COVID-19 vaccines. Dad was getting their booster shot. The elder sibling went first, chose a sticker and then tried to ease the little sibling’s fears with slightly unhelpful comments like, “it only feels like a sewing machine needle.” The younger sibling was not having any of it. But with the help of their dad, they got their shot, dried their eyes and chose their sticker. Now it was dad’s turn. The youngest wanted to make sure dad was well taken care of. They helped clean dad’s arm with an alcohol pad and then with no prompting the child who had been crying moments ago instructed their dad to take a deep breath, just as I had asked them to do. It was touching. Kids are nothing but resilient sponges watching our every move in order to learn how to make their own.

The quiz-show client

As we waited for the vaccine to be loaded, a client wanted to play geography trivia with me. I happily obliged. “What’s the most populated island in Canada?” she asked. I went back and forth between Newfoundland and Prince Edward Island finally deciding on Newfoundland. I sensed I was wrong. “L’Île de Montréal!” they said enthusiastically. We went on to discuss their journey to Canada. She has proudly called herself a Canadian citizen for two decades now.

For so many of us, the COVID-19 pandemic has led to a pandemic of a different sort – one of loneliness and isolation where we have been deprived of all sorts of human interactions. Exchanges with strangers became almost non-existent during lockdowns and are only just starting to re-emerge in our day to day lives.

In these brief imperfect vaccination-clinic interactions that could be seen as inconsequential, we are giving each other what are perhaps the most sacred gifts we can offer – attentiveness, a listening ear, a caring voice, a gentle hand … and a big fat jab!

Glenna Fraumeni lives in Toronto.

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