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Greenville Business Magazine

Health Care Professionals Share Experiences With Covid-19 Vaccine

(Above: Dr. Mark Scheurer getting vaccinated. Photo courtesy of MUSC.) 

By Liv Osby

Dr. Mileka Gilbert’s parents both had Covid-19, resulting in her mother’s hospitalization. While they survived, a dear friend wasn’t so lucky. 

Crystal Johnson, a nurse manager at Lexington Medical Center, has been overwhelmed by the many people, including those in their 20s, who have died of the virus.

So as soon as the two women got the chance to be vaccinated against the disease that’s claimed the lives of more than 400,000 Americans so far, they signed up.

“As an ER nurse, I’ve seen a lot. But nothing compares to what we’ve been dealing with over this past year,” said Johnson. “There are a lot of seriously ill patients. We see a lot of young, healthy patients who just turn to the worse. Unfortunately, we’ve seen a lot of death.”

In addition to her personal connection to the virus, Gilbert, who is assistant professor of pediatric rheumatology at the Medical University of South Carolina, spends her days caring for children with autoimmune diseases who take immunosuppressive drugs, making them more vulnerable to infection, as well as children who have Multisystemic Inflammatory Syndrome, or MIS-C, a serious condition associated with Covid-19.

“To see all this happen,” she said, “I’m thinking about this for my patients, but also for myself.”

Because of the risk they face working with patients every day, health care workers were first to be vaccinated, along with vulnerable nursing home residents and staff.

Now that many have had both doses of the Pfizer vaccine, they shared their experiences with Greenville Business Magazine.

Like the others, Johnson got her first dose in December and the second in January. She had no symptoms with either except a sore arm.

“It was just a little shot like any other immunization. I had my shot and came back to work. I had no side effects at all. I felt fine,” she said. 

“But emotionally,” she added, “it was fulfilling knowing that I was able to do my part to protect my family, friends, fellow nurses, and community, to do my part in battling Covid.”

Dr. Ryan Brown, an ER physician with Bon Secours St. Francis Health System, had no side effects except for a sore arm for a day or two.

“I had heard … that some people had more symptoms with the second dose,” he said. “But I got my vaccine and went straight to work, taking care of multiple people in a busy ER. I had no symptoms at all. No fever, no body aches.”

Others experienced some side effects, but nothing serious.

Dr. Emil Sarmiento, an Upstate South Carolina allergist and immunologist, had so many questions from friends and colleagues about the vaccine that he documented his experience online.

“I decided I had to do this scientifically,” he said, noting that any vaccine can cause side effects like a sore arm and mild flu like symptoms.

Some pain at the injection site turned out to be the worst of the first shot, he said, while he developed a nasty headache 24 hours after the second shot that he managed with Tylenol and hydration.

“I challenged myself to see what I could do,” he said. “On the third day, I did my full body workout and did very well. I had no problem at all.”

Sarmiento said he’s spoken with others who had side effects ranging from a fever and body aches that lasted a day to three days of flu-like symptoms, but he’s not aware of anyone in the area who had a severe reaction like anaphylaxis.

Gilbert had a bit of soreness in her arm after the first shot, too, but no other problems. With the second, she developed some joint pain, a headache and fatigue. But about an hour after hydrating and taking some Aleve, “everything shut off like a light switch. I had all my energy back. No pain. No headache. That was it.”

Dr. Mark Scheurer, a pediatric cardiac intensivist and chief of Children’s and Women’s Clinical Services at MUSC, said he had a sore arm after the first shot, like he’s had with other vaccines, and a slight headache and sore arm for about a day after the second dose.

“For me that was it,” he said. “I was able to work and feel good and do my usual daily exercise.”

Sarmiento said that, like many others, he was a little skeptical about taking a new type of vaccine that uses pieces of RNA to cause the cells to make a protein that stimulates the immune system to respond. Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are this type.

“But I looked at the study and I liked it,” he said. “Based on the science, the messenger RNA is a safer vaccine because it’s not a live virus. Also, the response rate is better because it’s very specific in how it stimulates the antibodies.”

Brown also sees many patients with Covid-19 in the ER, and has been moved by the suffering. 

“There have been days where you see some very sick family members by the twos and threes. It’s been a constant thing for the past couple of months,” he said. “It is scary. Especially when you see how this illness has affected families.”

So he was happy when he was one of the first at St. Francis to be vaccinated. Any trepidation he might have felt taking a new vaccine was outweighed by witnessing the severity of the disease, how it’s impacting people, and the domino effect it’s had on society.

Moreover, he said, companies have been working with messenger RNA for other therapies for years.

“I was at the front of the line and lucky to be there,” said Scheurer. “It was clear to me that not only was vaccination the right thing to do for me and my family, it was a huge privilege that most didn’t get to consider.”

While he thought a lot about the risks, he reviewed the research and concluded the vaccine was “incredibly safe.”

“I weighed the risks and benefits, and for me, it wasn’t even close,” he said. “It was wholeheartedly toward me getting vaccinated.”

Moreover, Scheurer said he believes in innovative therapies because he sees them work on patients.

“I think it’s miraculous actually,” he said. “I am lucky to see science and medicine move forward by trying new things. That’s the nature of how we’ve advanced our ability to care for people.”

Gilbert had no hesitancy about the mRNA vaccine, saying it’s been studied for years and is used in the treatment of other diseases, like breast cancer. So after weighing the potential risk of a new vaccine against having a severe case of Covid, and reviewing the research, she had “no hesitation” about getting vaccinated.”

And as director of diversity inclusion in the pediatrics department, Gilbert also wanted to help educate the community, particularly communities of color who are disproportionately affected by the virus, how important it is to be vaccinated.

“I understand the hesitancy,” she said, “and want to be a part of the education that goes out to our community so they can make the best decision for themselves.”

Johnson said that caring for patients with Covid in addition to those with heart attacks, strokes and other conditions, has been exhausting and emotionally taxing for the staff. Yet they come in day after day, hoping they don’t catch it and bring it home to family.

While some were initially skeptical about the vaccine, most changed their minds once they saw other nurse leaders and physicians get vaccinated, she said. 

“Covid is scary. I would rather take that vaccine than take the chance of contracting Covid,” she said. “As soon as the email came across to my nursing director … I said please let me go first.”

All the providers said everyone should get the vaccine when they can, and use precautions like masks and social distancing in the meantime.

“I’ve recommended it to all my family members,” said Brown. “Especially those over … 70. My wife works in health care and she got her second dose this afternoon.”

Sarmiento, who was also tested for antibodies after being vaccinated and is producing them as expected, has recommended it for his family as well. Even those who survive the virus could be left with long-term cardiac or neurological impact, he said, and without enough people being vaccinated, the country can’t achieve herd immunity.

“I’ve seen so many people who died young unnecessarily because of Covid,” he said. “If I could prevent it by getting a vaccine … it’s better than the alternative.”

Scheurer said his wife, who is also a doctor, has been vaccinated, along with his parents.

“We’re only going to get back to a more steady state of our society when we get to a point where this virus can’t spread amongst us,” he said, “… and that’s through vaccination predominantly.”

Gilbert said there was nothing about the experience, including the mild side effects, that would keep her from recommending the vaccine.

“The way I see it,” she said, “the vaccine can only be helpful.”