My COVID Vaccine Experience, Part 2

As I maneuvered my car past the line of people trailing into the hospital, I felt a sense of deja vu. Same hospital. Same parking lot. Same signs directing patients towards the COVID vaccine sign-in line. My appointment for the second dose of the Pfizer vaccine had been scheduled for the same day at the same time exactly three weeks after my first dose. In addition to the same hospital, I thought I even recognized some of the same patients from my last visit. The team of nurses worked together as seamlessly as an assembly line in a factory, funneling patients through check-in, then through the room where injections took place, then to the waiting room.

Getting my vaccine

When it was my turn, the needle slid into my arm. Because I’m so accustomed to blood draws, I was once again surprised at how painless the injection was.

“Busy day?” I asked the nurse administering the shot.

She laughed. “Every day is busy,” she said. “It’s been a steady stream of people.”

Her words reassured me. The busier the better, I thought. I allowed myself to imagine wandering around the mall or grabbing coffee with a friend. I pictured my students’ smiles as they walked through my door, many of them 6 inches taller than I remembered them.

Vaccines and immunosuppressants

I’d heard horror stories from my able-bodied friends about the side effects of the second shot. Fevers, headaches, muscle soreness. The stories didn’t scare me. I’d lived with similar or worse symptoms for eleven years as a lupus patient. What did scare me about the vaccine was having to reduce my lupus medication for over a month.

“Your immune system needs to be active enough to respond to the shot,” my rheumatologist explained. I nodded, uneasy, as she instructed me to lower my daily dose of immunosuppressants in half.

The day of my first vaccine dose, I’d halved my dose as my doctor told me to. Within a week, I’d started to feel the effects. My joints stiffened as if I’d aged 30 years overnight. Dark circles sprouted under my eyes as my fatigue increased. Mental fuzziness and forgetfulness followed me around like an unwelcome guest. I found myself forgetting appointments and entering rooms in my apartment several times a day only to forget why I’d walked through the door.

The impact of lupus

Even at my healthiest since my diagnosis, I need around 9 or 10 hours of sleep each night. My fatigue is at its worst in the mornings, so I’ve rearranged my entire life to avoid mornings. I flop out of bed around 11 am, always still tired after a long sleep. During a lupus flare, I spend most of my time in bed. I wake up around 1 pm, rush through breakfast, then start work. After work, I scarf down some dinner, then head to bed. Months have passed where dust piles up on the end tables in my house, dishes accumulate in the kitchen, and phone calls and emails go unanswered.

Second shot conclusion

By the week before my second dose of Pfizer, 2 weeks after I’d reduced my medication, the familiar fatigue of a lupus flare had set in. I reluctantly fished in my medicine cabinet for the bottle of steroids that my doctor prescribed. It made a small dent in the fatigue, but I still found myself needing to rest throughout the day, then collapsing into bed right after dinner.

I had no adverse effects from the second shot. My arm was barely even sore. But from the moment I walked out of the hospital to the parking lot, I was mentally counting the days until I could return to my regular dose of immunosuppressants.

Three weeks have passed since that last shot in my arm. A return to my regular dose of lupus medication has banished most of my fatigue, although I still don’t stumble out of bed until 11 am. I recently celebrated Easter with a family friend at a favorite Mexican restaurant. I couldn’t help but stare at the menus, the decorative tiles on the walls, and the plates of steaming fajitas whisked around on trays. I hadn’t set foot inside a restaurant in over a year. As I sat down at the booth, I felt suddenly calm. Over the past year, crowds and people without masks had sent my heart racing. Looking around at the families gathered over chips and salsa, I felt more optimistic about the future than I had in a long time.

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