By, M. Ahmanise Sanati, LCSW, PPSC
Region H Director, NASW-CA
My name is Ahmanise, and I’m a social worker at Twin Towers Correctional Facility. The facility I work in is dangerous for reasons that we can’t enforce mask-wearing, we have roughly 5,000 people in our facility at any given time with people coming and going at all hours, we have poor ventilation and minimal means to be socially distant. My workplace was a petri dish pre-Covid, now it’s an infestation. So when I was offered the opportunity to receive the Pfizer vaccine in the first round, I accepted it like a golden ticket in Charlie in the Chocolate Factory.
To give some context, I have been advocating for safer conditions since the start of the pandemic, and I haven’t stopped. My husband and I are both essential workers and are juggling life with two young children. We don’t have any extra assistance, or a pod, and we have been taking matters very seriously from the beginning. Every time I go to work, I wear different shoes that I keep in a box, I strip down in my basement when I get home, and immediately rush up to the shower. The kids know not to touch me until I’m clean, and even then there is always some worry, because there are still so many unknowns. By the grace of something bigger than me, we have been COVID-19-free.
When I heard that the vaccine was going to be offered at my worksite for Department of Health Services employees, I was urged to sign up. It felt a bit like a lottery situation, but I went ahead and submitted the form as soon as possible. I didn’t think I’d be selected for the first-round and was hoping that I would be in at least the 2nd or 3rd round, because… well, I wasn’t sure that I was ready to get it in the FIRST ROUND. Don’t get me wrong, I am a fan of vaccines. I am also vegan, majored in Philosophy, and often overthink things, so I thought it was best for my mental health if I didn’t win this lottery. Of course, a few days later, I got an email informing me that I would be offered the opportunity to be vaccinated in Tier 1A, and that’s when things got real.
I called my husband and we talked about it. Without a doubt, we agreed that I should do it. I’ll admit, I had to pause for a bit to breathe, to let things settle in, and to process what this meant. I trusted the experts, I believe science is real, and logic is an amazing thing. I knew it was the right thing to do and that I was going to do it, but I’ll admit, I was a little nervous, and dare I say, a wee bit scared. Of course that wasn’t going to stop me, but it made me think and go down “worry lane” for a few minutes here and there… but like any other time I catch myself going down a rabbit hole, I pull myself back on track. I was doing it, and the plan was I’d go first thing in the morning on Friday to LAC/USC Hospital. This was going to be the Christmas gift to the family. I figured even if I had side effects, getting it 12/18, I would be fine by Christmas.
I was planning to be there right at 6:30 am, but I opted to sleep in a little instead of rushing. I figured, if anything, more sleep would help my immune system. I ate late night before in a “Yay you’re getting the vaccine” party of two, so I wasn’t hungry when I got up. I had a delicious coffee with almond milk, brought along my big bottle of orange flavored soda water and went on my way. There was no traffic, I was in downtown LA in about 20 minutes, and parking was a breeze. Even though I’d sent countless patients there on a 5150 hold before, it was my first time at the facility. There were signs on cones indicating where to go, and when I saw the line ahead, I knew I arrived. There were spots on the ground socially distancing us, so I found mine- here we go!
As I was looking around, I could feel the buzz in the brisk air. There were more people walking with purpose and lots of smiles all around. When I heard a woman behind me say on her phone with excitement , “I’m in line, mom!”, that’s when it actually hit me; this is a huge deal and I am incredibly privileged. I also felt like my mom was with me in that moment, too.
As I got closer to the front, I noticed media arriving and slowly more official-type folk were too. It was quite an event, and I felt a little bit like a celebrity. Finally, they told me to head to #11 (I think?), and I walked up to the area and sat down. After they confirmed my information, they asked me which arm, and within moments, I felt that sweet prick of the needle. The nurses were too incredible, as they ensured my moments were captured in a photo session, and I “wanted to look good”- they laughed with me. Once I was done, I was quickly directed to an area where I was to wait for 15 minutes to ensure I was okay, and then I could go. I went, I texted my closest friends and family, and soon I was on my way.
I was feeling fine when I left, just school-girl giddy and “walking on air”. It wasn’t until I was driving that I felt slightly lightheaded for a brief bit, or so I thought. But it was very subtle and it occurred to me that given the excitement, the caffeine, and the whole situation, it could be a number of things. Soon enough, it was gone and I felt 100% normal. We sipped on some port wine to celebrate that evening, and I slept great. For the next few days, all I had was some soreness at the injection site, nothing different than a flu shot. The actual spot where the needle it the skin was slightly raised for a day, like a small mosquito bite.
The next dose was scheduled for Jan.8th. This time around I got to bed a little earlier, since I knew what to expect (or so I thought), and I was in line at 6:30am. This time I felt more like I was in line at a show where I was fortunate to get tickets, but definitely not celebrity status. There was no paparazzi, just your average government-style line. However, things were definitely more somber. The holidays were over, and reality had sunken in. As a result of a lot of selfish people, Los Angeles was now the COVID-19 epicenter of the world, and nearly every hospital was out of ICU beds. Horror stories were circulating of ambulances waiting 8 hours, mortuaries at capacity, and our staff was getting wiped out at work. This no longer felt as exciting, rather more of my duty to do something for my community, a community that was needing so much more.
This time around, I opted for my other arm, and everything felt the same as last time. However, my arm was sore to touch within about 4 hours (1st time it was sore the next day). I was also a little bruised at the site. By around 7pm, I started experiencing chills, nausea, and had a headache that continued to intensify. I was able to apply pressure to my temples and that helped the pain, but by 8pm I was getting body aches, and I knew I wasn’t well. I didn’t bring any paperwork back, and I was not up-to-date on the details of what to expect. I had essentially no symptoms before so I didn’t plan for anything different. Well, I should’ve known better.
I finally decided that somewhere in my memory, taking Ibuprofen AFTER my shot was okay. So I did, I needed something. I then felt the need to take a hot bath, everything was hurting and I was SO cold. I noticed my arm was also very sore, I couldn’t lift it straight up. After I soaked in the bath, I put on warm pajamas and piled on the blankets. I finally fell asleep by around 9pm, and woke up feeling cold and achy at around 1 am. I was warm with a low fever, but never had the energy to find the thermometer. I figured it didn’t matter because I was taking medication that would help with that symptom anyway. I fell asleep again, woke up a few hours later, and then again around 5am. It was a long night… The only way I could get back to sleep was if I took a hot bath, because my chills were so intense and my body was hurting. That morning, I contacted my doctor to confirm what medication I could take, and they told me that I was okay to take Ibuprofen and Acetaminophen. So I rotated taking those for about 24 hours, with my last dosage Saturday night.
Saturday I was in bed most of the day, in and out of sleep and occasional hot baths. It felt like I had the flu. By Saturday evening, I was starting to feel slightly better, but my energy was so low. I only had an appetite for Miso soup. I realized then that it was highly likely I wouldn’t be able to work the next day. I was still experiencing body aches, though not as frequently, so I had my last dose of Ibuprofen and went to bed early. I slept pretty well that night. Sunday I only had some aches in the morning, I was no longer experiencing chills, nausea or headaches, and I was mostly just weak. I drank tea, had some more soup and a few crackers, and that was it. I could lift my arm up again, but it was still sore in the general area. I stayed home that day, as I felt I was still in a sick haze, although recovering. I was slowly able to walk more comfortably around the house.
Monday I woke up feeling almost back to normal, but still weak. I had to call out of work, because although I was better, I still wasn’t well. I was well enough to mildly supervise my children with their schooling from home, but business was conducted from bed. I hadn’t been able to eat “normal” meals yet, but I had some heartier soups and was slowly getting my appetite back. As I was still in recovery mode, I was taking things easier overall, and went to bed early that eve. By Tuesday morning, I woke up feeling well. My children and I were able to do our weekly volunteering with Grassroots Neighbors, where we pack up food for neighbors in need. I was finally able to acknowledge that I was vaccinated, I was safe, and in time our society will be a safer place for everyone.
Even though I got sick with the second dose, I didn’t regret my decision to get the vaccine for a second. Although it took a hot (bath) minute to get my energy back, this was all in the realm of “normal” and I heard of many others who had the same experience. We have so much work to do as a society to get through this, but I feel like this opportunity helped me to see the light at the end of the tunnel, at last. One thing noted to me by a dear friend, if in a two-parent household, or in care of another, please plan accordingly, because you may be out of commission for a few days (i.e. both parents probably shouldn’t get the shot at the same time!). I don’t know if there is any way to know if one will experience side effects or not, as many of my colleagues were fine. I am a pretty healthy 40 year old who exercises regularly, and this certainly wiped me out, as you now know. I can say with confidence, I am stronger now! Also, of COURSE I am continuing to practice the same safety precautions as before, because I care about all of you. I am committed to doing what I have to do to get us all through this as a community, as safely as possible.
Photos courtesy of M. Ahmanise Sanati:
Ahmanise may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org