According to a New York Times article, (Robbins, Rebecca (2021, April 28). Millions Are Skipping Their Second Doses of Covid Vaccines. The New York Times), more than five million people or 8 percent of Americans have missed their second dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines. Until a few days ago, I was a member of this group. The decision to proceed with the second dose of the Pfizer covid-19 vaccine was an emotionally difficult and painful process for me and not one that I took lightly.
My journey with the covid-19 vaccine began on March 31st. I scheduled an appointment the moment I became eligible in my state to receive the vaccine. At the time of my first dose, the only horror stories I read were from friends posting on social media about debilitating flu-like symptoms that knocked them out for a few days post-vaccine. Their experiences sounded miserable but certainly not insurmountable. Not knowing how my body would process the vaccine, I blocked out three days on my calendar so that I would have time to rest, if needed. I never experienced a bad reaction to a vaccine. Despite this being a new type of vaccine, my personal history gave me no reason to fear moving forward. It wasn’t just the CDC that was encouraging vaccinations, pop-culture began promoting the vaccine just like it was simply another trendy it product, including a nationally major network star-studded televised event that was coined, “Roll-Up Your Sleeve” – the covid vaccines had major PR power.
Initially, my first dose went off without a hitch. For the first forty hours, I experienced no appreciable side effects. I have to admit that I felt like a superhero – having “conquered” the vaccine without a misstep. The Universe never likes a bragger and it quickly let me know that I needed to check my ego. Forty hours following dose one, 11 PM at night, I was suddenly awakened, grasped by fear. My reaction was to leap out of bed as quickly as I could. Something was not right. I began frantically trying to shake my arms, both arms were paralyzed from fingertips to shoulders combined with excruciating pain which ran unmercifully from my fingertips to my neck. The only time I ever felt a similar sensation of sheer panic was when I experienced near drowning as a child. I paced back and forth trying to “shake feeling” into my arms, attempting to steady my breath and calm down. I was caught in a mental volley between telling myself to stay calm and wanting to scream as loud as I could for help. While the entire episode seemed to last an eternity, it probably lasted only about five-minutes in length.
I proceeded cautiously through the next day. I work from home and was glad that I didn’t have any commitments that required me to drive for the following two days. I tried to remain calm throughout the day as I experienced numbness and pain in both hands and periodic bilateral arm weakness that came and went. My symptoms, though highly concerning, were not worsening.
Unfortunately, that night – sixty-six hours after my first dose of the vaccine – at 1 AM, I was awakened with the same experience as the night before – bilateral arm paralysis and pain – it was even more frightening and a more painful episode than what I experienced the previous night. I woke my husband and we considered calling 9-1-1. However, just as the night before, the sensation eventually subsided. Over the course of the following 30 days, I had difficulty opening and closing both hands, my hands constantly throbbed, and episodes of sudden weakness in both arms occurred daily. During those 30 days, I also experienced the sensation of pins and needles periodically running up and down my spine. While the experience was physically challenging, the weight of the experience on my mental health was even heavier. Feeling as if I was getting to the end of the pandemic-tunnel by obtaining the Pfizer vaccine and then having this very frightening reaction to the vaccine left me feeling defeated.
Warnings and testimonies that the second-dose side-effects were often worse than what was experienced after the first dose prompted me to quickly cancel my second-dose appointment which had originally been set for three-weeks following the first dose per CDC guidelines. Several countries’ second dose recommendations are at twelve-weeks, which made me feel safe allowing myself the gift of time to decide how to proceed. I read all I could about the mRNA vaccine nervous system reactions that were being reported. Meanwhile, social media became riddled with frames around profile pictures celebrating vaccinations, international travel began opening to those fully vaccinated, ballparks and venues began requiring full vaccinations to attend and the creation of vaccinated-only sections began emerging, government agencies announced lottery prizes and scholarship competitions for those vaccinated – it was a surreal experience to watch and I felt painfully stuck. The world was becoming segregated in yet a new way. The world was opening up and I was being left behind.
As the weight of my predicament began feeling heavier each day, I realized that the mental and emotional struggle I was experiencing was not because I didn’t feel safe after just one-dose, because I did feel protected from serious illness – I realized my angst was because I felt I was stuck. I felt like choice had been taken away from me. I hated how helpless and defeated I felt. For my mental well-being, I needed to regain control.
I used the following 3-step process to pull myself forward, to step into feeling empowered through the freedom of choice:
- I took a deep breath and stepped away from my emotions for just a moment.
- I consciously recognized that I am not stuck – that I always have a choice.
- I then thought, “What are my choices?” — I can move on with life without getting the second dose, knowing that at least for the present time – I’ll be limited with things that I may have access to, including international travel OR I can proceed with the second dose and prepare to fight whatever side-effects come my way.
While the choices presented were nowhere near optimal, they were still choices that I had the power of making. Stepping back from the emotions of my experience – and reminding myself that in all things I have a choice – was the game changer for me. I realized that the choice to risk a second dose was my own choice and not something I was going to do because of peer pressure, popular culture, or government pressure. Taking back my mental power freed something inside of me. It brought peace back into my body – it allowed me to see clearly what was best for me.
With guidance from a neurologist, at about six-weeks after my first vaccine dose, an MRI of my cervical spine was performed. The results of my MRI were unremarkable. There was nothing in my MRI that showed the possibility of permanent paralysis given a second dose. If I were to experience paralysis again, it most likely would not be permanent. Could I handle a month or more of temporary paralysis? I thought about the physical challenges that I’ve overcome in my life – a catastrophic car accident in my 20s that required me to learn to walk again, two hip replacements, and most recently breast cancer. Thinking about all of the times my body has shown its remarkable resilience allowed me to shift the focus from what my body couldn’t do in its process of the vaccine to all the times it has shown me its power to heal. Just this small change in focus shifted my mental perspective from feeling defeated to feeling nearly invincible. Although not definitive, the MRI result was the last piece I needed that prompted my decision to move forward with the second dose.
As of this writing, I’m nearly 3 weeks post second dose. I’ve experienced absolutely no side effects other than a sore injection arm for 24-hours and a middle-of-the night headache the first night. I feel a weight has been lifted off of me, not because I’ll be deemed fully vaccinated, but because I realized that it was my choice and I moved from feeling stuck to feeling empowered. My decision to move forward with a second dose or even to be vaccinated at all was my personal decision – it is one that we all need to make for ourselves – it appears that our reactions to covid-19 and to the vaccines are as unique and complex as we each are. We must exercise compassion, recognizing our own unique genetic makeup and experiences as we navigate through this frightening pandemic.
Being stuck, whether it is around decisions about a vaccine, a relationship, or a job can be one of the worst debilitating feelings in the world. Recognizing that you are not stuck and that you have the power of choice gives you freedom to see opportunity, to change your mindset, and to move forward on the path that is best for you. The journey through this pandemic has not been easy for any of us, and I urge us to show compassion as we navigate this new phase of reopening, vaccinations, and defining the new normal.