They Got the Shot

UNE health professions alumni share COVID-19 vaccination experiences

Bischoff's vaccination card
Maine Medical Center emergency department nurse, and UNE alum, Suki Bischoff's COVID-19 vaccination card.

“Hope.”

It’s a word, a feeling lost on many in these turbulent times. But for numerous University of New England alumni, frontline health workers who since March have fearlessly walked toe-to-toe with the novel coronavirus, the word finally carries some meaning.

COVID-19 vaccines have begun arriving in Maine, and health professions alumni in various disciplines are starting to feel a sense of security and ease, and, yes, even hope that the pandemic will soon begin tapering toward its end.

“I haven’t hugged my grandparents in over a year. After the second vaccine, I received a message from my grandmother saying, ‘Yea! Soon you can visit!’ and that just brought tears to my eyes,” said Suki Bischoff ’14 (Nursing), an emergency department nurse at Maine Medical Center in Portland. “As both a professional and personal decision, becoming vaccinated was the best thing I could do to protect my family, friends, coworkers, and patients.”

Bischoff, who has worked in the hospital’s most intensive unit since 2016, received her first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine on Dec. 18. Her second dose came on Jan. 4, 2021, making the Nursing alum one of the first in Maine to receive the full course of the newly developed — and record setting — inoculation.

The experience brought immense relief for Bischoff.

The 28-year-old from Chelmsford, Massachusetts has spent the past 10 months donning a heavy PAPR hood, a respiratory head covering, for hours at a time during her shifts. A fan blows filtered air into the hood, making it difficult to hear patients, she said. And when she’s in isolation, she stays in isolation — there are no bathroom breaks, and there is no eating or drinking. These periods can last up to five hours at a time during a 12-hour shift.

As vaccinations continue, Bischoff said she is looking forward to the days when PAPR hoods and N95s are reserved for the most serious of health crises — not just another day at work.

“I'm hoping people will trust the science and take politics out of medicine. I'm hopeful that my dying patients will get to have their families at the bedside again. I'm hopeful that one day I'll get to see my patients' faces again,” she fantasized. “I'm hopeful that things will get better.”

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Bischoff receives her first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.
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Bischoff dons a PAPR hood.

Tanner McLaughlin ’19 (Nursing), expressed a similar sentiment following his first dose of the Moderna vaccine on Christmas Eve.

“The surgeon who vaccinated me was wearing a Santa hat, and it felt a little surreal,” the Millinocket native reflected. “It was the first time since March that you could feel hope among every person you met. It was no longer just sadness and stress; everything felt a little bit lighter.”

Both alums shared that they felt no side effects from either vaccine, save for a little soreness in their arms, a common phenomenon following most vaccines. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that vaccine recipients may experience fever, chills, tiredness, or headache in addition to pain and swelling in the injection site, similar to reactions to the influenza vaccine.

Annette Coulombe ’91 (Occupational Therapy) also reported no serious side effects upon receiving her first dose of the Moderna vaccine on Dec. 29 and voiced her positive outlook on the pandemic in light of the vaccine’s arrival.

“So many people have been so devastated by this disease in so many ways. Being able to gather with loved ones and friends again, safely, is something I very much look forward to,” she said. “I also feel hopeful that this will keep the people I care for safer as it gives me more confidence in treating my patients.”

McLaughlin, though optimistic, cautioned that the vaccine’s dispersal does not mean the pandemic will suddenly come to an end.

“I always try to remain positive, and this vaccine certainly adds hope, but I still think it will take quite a while to feel some degree of normalcy again,” he said. “The pandemic is real and getting worse, and we need to be vigilant, keep wearing masks, and stay socially distant until we see our numbers drastically improve.”

McLaughlin, Bischoff, and Coulombe spoke to concerns shared by some about the safety and efficacy of the vaccine, particularly over the speed with which it was developed. Their resounding response: trust in science.

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Tanner McLaughlin ’19
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McLaughlin's vaccination card.

“Not getting the vaccine would make someone, and those around them, vulnerable and could quite literally be a matter of life and death,” said Coulombe, an occupational therapist at New England Rehabilitation Hospital of Portland, who added that she has a compromised immune system. “I’ve seen, first-hand, what toll this virus can take, and I wouldn’t wish it on anybody.”

Bischoff called the vaccine, “a chance for us to make things better,” and urged all to become vaccinated against the virus that has claimed more than 2 million lives across the globe.

“When it is your time, get the vaccine, and, when it is safe to do so, hug your loved ones a little bit tighter,” she said. “Not everyone will be able to do that at the end of this.”

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Coulombe's vaccination card.

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