An emergency doc takes us inside her COVID-19 vaccination experience—and assuages our fears

what is it like to get the covid vaccine
Photo via SELF Magazine/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Chelsea Bonfiglio is an emergency physician in Denver. In December, she was in the first wave of healthcare workers to receive a COVID-19 vaccination. Now, she writes about the entire process and about what it was like to get the COVID vaccine, from receiving the news that she would be inoculated to the side effects she experienced after she was jabbed. She is also the sister of Nautilus writer Nahila Bonfiglio. Here is Chelsea Bonfiglio’s story, in her own words.

By Chelsea Bonfiglio, MD

Emergency Physician, Denver CO

US Acute Care Solutions

It’s been 12 months. Twelve months of feeling my heart race when I enter the hospital, wondering, “Is today the day?” 

Is today the day I take it home? Is today the day I contract this virus? Spread it to my wife, my kids? The anxiety trickles down from there. As an emergency medicine physician, I live with fears like this every day—but they have changed in the era of COVID. Is today the day I have to tell someone’s family that we have no ventilator for their loved one? Is this the day I’ll be the last person a human sees before I take control of their breathing and put them into a sleep they will never wake from?

Twelve months of fearing for my colleagues and friends as we’ve watched doctors, nurses, and all hospital staff walk through the doors day after day, despite growing numbers of our own felled by this disease. 

So, when I received an email from my hospital on Dec. 14, 2020, my heart skipped a beat. “You have been identified as someone recommended to be vaccinated first, and through this message, we are extending you an invitation to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.” The implications of this—for my family, my friends, and the world—was enough to bring me to tears.  

I know this vaccine is new, and I know it’s scary. In a time that has already been so hard, many of you are likely concerned about the COVID-19 vaccine. So, I wanted to share my experience, because if this urges even one person to take the vaccine, it will have been enough. 

Getting the vaccine was easy. I registered online and was given a date two days later. I went to the hospital and stood in line with my colleagues. For the first time in a long time, I saw hope on their faces, which I know was mirrored on my own. A nurse double-checked my registration, and I was taken to a chair.

I had to answer a few additional questions about my medical history before signing the paperwork. I have a history of anaphylactic allergic reaction to nuts and shellfish, so they asked me to stick around for a full 30 minutes afterward to ensure I didn’t have a reaction. Normally, people only have to wait for 15 minutes. 

The shot itself felt the same as any other—don’t worry, it may be stored at arctic temperatures, but they warm it before injection. I stayed for my observation period, and I walked out of the hospital into what felt like a new world. 

I’m going to take a quick pause here to get a bit nerdy. This vaccine is the result of 10 years of research, capped by thousands upon thousands of hours put in by scientists around the world over the last year. Scientists took existing data from viruses similar to this one to come up with this absolutely revolutionary vaccine.

The COVID-19 vaccine builds immunity by convincing your immune system to recognize the virus as a threat without introducing the virus itself. It carries a message for a protein on the surface of the virus, which is transcribed in your body and presented to your immune cells.  Your body then has the chance to not only learn how to fight off the virus if it ever sees it again, but to do so quickly and efficiently thanks to the creation of memory immune cells (T and B lymphocytes). 

OK, back to my story. The evening after I received the vaccine, I developed arm soreness around the injection site similar to the soreness that follows a flu vaccine. I did not take Motrin or Tylenol, and the soreness was gone by morning. I did not develop any other symptoms after the first dose, though some of my colleagues had a mild headache and body aches. 

So then what? Was I immune? Did I get a free pass to stop wearing a mask and return to the gym? Not quite yet. All the current vaccines are a two-dose regimen, and they don’t work instantly. According to Pfizer’s studies, observed vaccine efficacy (immunity, so to speak) climbed to 52% starting at around 12 days after the first dose. It ultimately reaches full efficacy (95%) 7-14 days after the second dose. The Moderna vaccine has similar numbers, reaching 94.1 % efficacy after the second dose.

So, I waited. I waited 21 days to be exact. If you receive the Moderna vaccine, you’ll need to wait 28 days. I received the second dose on a Friday morning after working overnight in the Emergency Department. The process was again seamless: I checked in and received my shot. I again waited through my observation period without event and exited the building into crisp Denver air. I had no symptoms for about 10 hours following the second injection. 

That evening, I developed arm soreness again, and a few hours later, I started to develop body aches. Due to the immune response the vaccine seeks to induce, some symptoms are expected. Body and joint aches, fatigue, and even fever are normal. These symptoms are your body responding to the intruder and destroying it. In both Pfizer and Moderna’s trials, symptoms were more severe in patients under 65, often including fever, headache, fatigue, body and joint aches, and chills. 

The joint pain was odd, mostly because I didn’t otherwise feel ill. It felt surprisingly similar to soreness following a hard workout, except the pain originated in my joints rather than in my muscles. Between 24-48 hours following the vaccine, I had mild to moderate joint pain and fatigue, along with a mild headache. I ended up taking a few doses of Tylenol—more to keep up with my 3-year-old twins than because I truly needed them for the symptoms. On day two following the second shot, I had a persistent mild headache, but no other symptoms. I even jumped on my Peloton for a workout, and I still felt great afterward. 

That feeling just keeps increasing as I reach the end of my 14-day period toward full immunity. Now I can face the question on everyone’s mind: Do I get to ditch the mask

Not quite yet. The science is new, so we’re still not sure exactly how the vaccine will affect transmission of the virus. It is likely, as more people get vaccinated, that masking will become unnecessary, but we won’t know until more data comes in. So, for now, I’ll continue to wear my mask to protect my community. 

I sleep more soundly at night, knowing the risk of bringing this horrible disease home to my family or giving it to a patient is so much lower. That the days of no visitors, of people dying alone and scared, are coming to an end. The days of watching my patients gasp for air, of promising them we will do all we can and knowing my face is the last they may ever see are finally going away. The light at the end of the tunnel is here, and all it takes is a poke (well, two). 

Read more on the coronavirus vaccine:

Sources: NJEM (Moderna), NJEM (Pfizer)

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