By Janice Silbermann
Recently I had the opportunity to take part in a vaccine trial for the COVID-19 virus, and ever since, I have been asked by many what provoked me to do so.
There is a part of me that feels a sort of scientific obligation. Anything that I can do to help further the current research to curb this pandemic, I will do. After all, I am a nurse. It is in my very nature to want to help others and decrease suffering. And naturally, as a healthcare worker, I want a vaccine to be available for the sake of my own health as well, as we are in especially vulnerable positions as frontline workers. But there is far more to it than merely that, more to it than the obvious and practical reasons, more to it than the simple fact that someone has to stand up and volunteer for these trials.
I work in psychiatry, and you cannot imagine the effect the pandemic has had on people’s mental health. We see plenty of news coverage about the physical ramifications, but just as much damage has been done to people’s emotional well-being throughout this crisis. We have all been forced into unwilling isolation, our social ties severed by quarantines and tense days of waiting for those telltale symptoms to manifest in ourselves and in our loved ones. We must sit and watch people’s entire worlds fall apart in the wake of deaths and medical bills and unemployment. We must watch patients die alone in quarantined hospital rooms, almost entirely cut off from their loved ones during what surely must be the most terrifying days of their lives, and we must do this knowing that somewhere outside the hospital is a family coming to terms with the fact that the loved one they sent into the hospital is likely to never come out again. As civilians, we have to carry the weight of our own grief; as nurses, we have to carry the weight of our patients’ grief and our coworkers’ grief as well.
No one wants to believe that they will never see a loved one again. Every day, I think about my 85-year-old mother and the fact that the Atlantic Ocean stands between us. I was going to go visit her, but my trip was abruptly canceled as the virus spread. Even if she never catches COVID-19 herself, the pandemic and the extreme danger that comes with traveling during it may very well still end up being to blame for me never getting to see my mother again. By the time I can safely go visit her again, it may be too late. It’s impossible for me to not be motivated to take part in a vaccine trial that could potentially lead to me seeing my mother again.
Never mind the economic effects this crisis has had. In a world dominated by conglomerates and massive corporations, it was already a struggle for locally owned small businesses to compete. Now they are in positions where they often cannot afford to stay open under the various restrictions or due to lack of staff or supplies. But they certainly cannot afford to close either. I’ve seen so many businesses suffer, and I cannot help but be acutely aware of the fact that behind every strained or destroyed small business is a family that has now lost their primary — and sometimes only — source of income. This is happening every day even in places that have strong community support. The business owners and their usual patrons have been financially demolished.
Like everyone else, I simply want my life back. I want to go outside without a mask, to see my friends’ faces again. I want to go back to movie theaters and restaurants without having to gamble with my health, and by extension, the health of my family. I want to go to the grocery store, without having to wipe down everything and wear gloves to avoid touching anything that might still carry the virus on its surface. I want to go on a real vacation again. And I want to be able to wake up in the morning without living in fear that at any moment I could get the call telling me that one of my friends or relatives has taken ill or dropped dead.
People are calling this the new normal, but there is nothing normal about this degree of suffering. I have to do whatever I can to change that. So when people ask me again how I could volunteer for this trial despite the fear and uncertainty, I feel the right answer is so obvious:
How could I not?
Janice Silbermann is a psychiatric nurse in Memphis, Tenn.