The syringe seemed oversized, the liquid inside urine-colored, the needle triggering an ache in my shoulder. The nurse told me to move my arm “to distribute the vaccine.” Did I want to distribute the vaccine? I circled and flapped. Then I sat in the empty hospital room, a laptop on my knees to keep up with my work, and waited to see what would happen.
This was five days ago. The week before, I’d volunteered for the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine safety trial at Beth Israel Hospital, a vaccine that might grant immunity with a single dose. This phase tests whether it’s safe for humans. Monkeys have weathered the vaccine fine, and the majority have proved immune. I’m obviously not a monkey, but other Ad26-based vaccines have been tested on thousands of volunteers to prevent HIV, Ebola, the Zika virus, influenza, the human papillomavirus, and malaria. The vaccine is made from a type of adenovirus known to cause mild colds. A common virus, it’s possible I’ve already had it.
I had searched online for vaccine trials in March, after my partner and I returned from vacation to a very different world. We had stepped into the Puerto Rican sunshine an hour after Governor Charlie Baker declared a state of emergency. With the upper 48 going into deep freeze, San Juan’s bars were packed, the harbor crawling with cruise ships. Strangers hugged us, shook our hands. Four days in, two Italian tourists tested positive. A few hours after we flew out, the island’s curfew went into effect. On our plane home, I took a picture of the clouds. I feared I might not see such a thing for a while. The morning after we landed, Massachusetts went into lockdown.
We had been lucky. And we’ve been lucky since.
The first week back, I drank in the news. New York seemed to be exploding, that ever-widening red dot on the map engulfing every nearby state. Nursing homes in Washington state were death traps. Infections had appeared in California with no clear trail. I looked at the photograph on my desk. My niece had married in Denver the previous August, and my family stood guffawing, cheering, and flailing our limbs when the photographer told us to “do something weird.” It’s one of my favorites. But with the coronavirus, I worried about my 90-year-old mother who would soon undergo chemotherapy. My sister has an auto-immune disease. Another niece has diabetes. What were the odds of us getting through this? And when would I be able to travel across the country to visit them again without the threat of bringing the virus along?
I filled in my contact information for every vaccine volunteer database I could find.
When we went into lockdown, I determined I wouldn’t waste time. If front-line medical and essential workers were risking their lives to keep me safe, I’d better try to get something done. The majority of these workers didn’t have a choice. We call them heroes, but they’d also like a fair wage, proper safety equipment, and freedom from harassment as they do their jobs. I’m a 47-year-old woman without kids. I have a low resting heart rate, no drug allergies, no risk factors. My work as a writer and writing teacher can easily be done at home. I’m more than lucky. When I finally got the call from Beth Israel, I could only say: Yes.
They kept me at the hospital for three hours the morning I received the vaccine, checking vitals, drawing blood, and ensuring I didn’t suffer an unexpected reaction. I didn’t. For the rest of the day, I rode an exuberant high that faded by mid-evening as my back and neck muscles began to ache and my head pounded. I was tired. In bed, my back felt hot against my shirt. I told myself I was imagining things. Most likely I was. I fell asleep with the help of a Tylenol and woke three hours later feeling better. The next day I remained somewhat tired, but otherwise my reaction to the vaccine was slight.
Had I received the placebo, the low dose, or the high? I was told the probability was 20-40-40, respectively. I have a second shot in two months. After that, I make a few more visits to the hospital to track my response. For my time, I’m paid $1,300. Nothing to sneeze at in my line of work, but it’s not why I’m involved.
Friends and family tell me their worries, offer gratitude. I appreciate it all, especially when I felt symptomatic, but compared to others in the health care trenches, volunteering for a trial is a minor act, and it comes with rewards. Being a guinea pig has snapped me out of my doldrums, made me feel I might offer something of some small worth.
I want to normalize the process in hopes that others take part and bring a modicum of trust to an expedited campaign promoted by a questionable administration. A great number of honest, gifted doctors, nurses, and researchers are working themselves to the bone to discover a vaccine that returns us closer to normal and saves lives. While this vaccine may not reap results for COVID-19, it could prove successful for other diseases down the line. I’m taking the long view.
And I’m ready for my next shot.
Michelle Hoover is a writer living in Boston.