For Kelly Donahue, being among the first to receive the COVID-19 vaccine when it rolled out this Tuesday in Ottawa felt like “winning a lottery.”
Donahue, 32, is a personal support worker (PSW) at the Perley and Rideau Veterans Health Centre. She’s among 355 personal support workers and long-term care staff vaccinated in the first two days of a special clinic at The Ottawa Hospital. Hospital administrators, working with the city’s Vaccine Distribution Task Force, turned a former training site at the Civic campus into the clinic in just five days after learning the hospital would be one of only two sites in Ontario to get early doses of the vaccine.
For Donahue, getting vaccinated was never a question. Like many who volunteered to immunize, or get immunized, she did it for others. Donahue is a special approach PSW: she works with people who shout, strike out, or curse because of their dementia. Her skills, which she teaches to other staff, have been invaluable during the pandemic. Masked, gowned, and visor-wearing caregivers have unintentionally terrified residents with dementia, sometimes provoking strong reactions. In addition, reduced visitors, restricted movements, and fewer art and recreation programs have been unbearably difficult.
When the Perley, which has lost 13 residents to COVID-19, was allotted 350 slots in the first batch of 1500 long-term care workers to get the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, Donahue saw one more chance to help.
“I wanted to make sure I had that extra protection for my residents, because I’m working with such frail elderly people,” she says. Donahue jumped onto her phone to book an appointment once telephone lines opened at Ottawa Public Health, three days before the hospital clinic opened.
“It was almost like trying to phone in to a contest,” she says.
Just after 3 p.m. on December 16, the day the first 105 people in Ottawa were immunized, Donahue got her shot. It was an emotional moment, not only for Donahue, but for Joanne Read, The Ottawa Hospital’s executive vice-president, chief planning and development office. Read sits on the vaccine task force. After multiple dry runs at the clinic before it opened, she was on tender hooks on the big day.
“I knew we were ready, but just seeing that person get vaccinated – it made a difference,” says Read. “It was a great, monumental day. We did not waste one single dose.”
Jo-Anne Miner, that first person to get the vaccine, shared Donahue’s motivation for getting vaccinated: she too wants residents she cares for to be spared death, illness, or isolation.
Miner, a single mother of five, has worked for 20 years at St. Patrick’s Home on Riverside Drive. Although some colleagues were reluctant to volunteer for the first doses for fear of potential adverse effects, Miner, 48, didn’t hesitate.
Her nerves only surfaced when she saw the bank of cameras poised to capture the historic moment at the hospital’s Civic campus. As photographers clicked and a nurse jabbed, Miner stayed stoic. She was thinking of a 94-year-old woman who can’t leave her room for most of the day.
“I’m just hoping all of us can take this, get on with our lives, and put this COVID behind us,” says Miner.
Dr. Christopher Cipkar, a resident who treats people with cancers of the blood, also wants to move past the pandemic’s devastation. That’s why he offered to spend three days at the clinic administering the vaccine.
“Getting this vaccine out is going to save lives,” Cipkar says.
The long-term care workers he immunized are trailblazers who represent the best not only of Ottawa, but of Canada, he says.
“It was inspiring to see these health-care workers … roll up their sleeves to do their part,” he says. “It’s really altruism that is going to end this pandemic – Canadians stepping up to help Canadians.”