Home CoronaVirus With a smile and thumbs up, five team members at JFK Medical...

With a smile and thumbs up, five team members at JFK Medical Center receive first doses of Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine

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EDISON – Hope.

That is what Charlene Letsch, a registered nurse working in critical care at Hackensack Meridian Health (HMH) JFK Medical Center, said of hearing about a COVID-19 vaccine.

She was one of five team members, who also included Mercedittas Mallari, director of the emergency department; Armando Tamargo, one of the hospital’s emergency medical technicians (EMT); Samuel LaCapra, chairman and medical director of emergency medical services; and Christopher Tee, assistant director of environmental services at the hospital, to get one of the first administered Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at the Edison hospital on Dec. 17.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration gave emergency use approval to the Pfizer vaccine on Dec. 11.

“When I caught word that the vaccine was going to be released, it was the first time in months that I felt hope,” Letsch said as she wiped away tears. “I feel that we’ve gone through so much with this and there is a light at the end of the tunnel. We are still in the tunnel, but there it is, we can see it so I wanted to get the vaccine as soon as I could and be part of the solution.”

The hospital received a shipment of 1,950 doses of the vaccine in dry ice on Dec. 17.

The process was relatively quick. Pharmacists mixed the vaccine, which was in a small vial, into a syringe for each team member. And after answering a couple of questions, the team members one by one recieved the vaccine. Many gave a smile and thumbs up afterwards.

The team members then had to wait 15 minutes to make sure there was no adverse reaction to the vaccine.

The team members said they felt “proud, honored and privileged” to have the opportunity to lead as a role model in the fight against the virus.

Letsch said on a personal and professional level she has felt at times “helpless and hopeless” dealing with the coronavirus.

“Back in March I actually got COVID-19 and I was sick for about eight weeks, I ended up in the ICU [Intensive Care Unit],” she said. “It affected me neurologically, I felt like it affected every single system of my body, my daughter got sick, I was miserable.”

And on a professional level, she said it has been hard to sleep at night having seen what she has seen as a critical care nurse.

LaCapra said COVID-19 has really been a long journey.

“COVID-19 really truly is a horrible disease,” he said. “I’ve had people come up to me and ask me along the way ‘Is this COVID-19 real?’ Anyone who’s been in the hospital knows the devastating effects it can have on people. Truly it’s been very difficult to watch and experience the death it has caused, it is something that we really haven’t seen. In the ER (emergency room) we are used to dealing with difficult situations very often and unfortunate situations, really heartbreaking situations, almost on a daily basis. But this has been something really that has gone on for about nine months now.”

Speaking as a physician, LaCapra said they always try to have something to provide for their patients whether to comfort pain or fight a disease.

Over time, LaCapra said they have learned different ways to treat the novel coronavirus and help people from getting more ill after treating others.

“One thing a little tough to think about sometimes is yes we don’t have a big track record on the vaccine, but we know it’s been tested, we know what it can do,” he said, adding knowing what the virus can do helps take that leap of confidence in the vaccine in efforts to keep everyone safe.

Mallari said as a nurse she believes in science.

“I know there’s always doubts and that’s OK, but I do believe that the vaccine will end this [pandemic],” she said. “I know that it’s our first line of defense. … I’m happy and excited it is here finally.”

Mallari said she is thankful for the opportunity to take the vaccine and show others to not be afraid.

“Hopefully one day we will look back and say remember that year, that unforgiving year, we will look back and cherish our patients and family members who have perished, but also be thankful for what has happened afterwards,” she said.

Tamargo said he is thankful to set an example for his co-workers and community in hopes they can one day go out without wearing a mask, have family dinner again without worrying and enjoy a few beers after a long day at work.

For Tamargo, the vaccine is another piece of insulation for frontline workers. He said when they go on assignment they don their personal protective equipment (PPE) – two pairs of gloves, a gown, a P100 respirator, eye shields, a hat and sometimes booties.

“Everything is there to protect me, but now I have another layer of protection inside, a shield that you can’t see,” he said. “We got some of the brightest minds in medicine that put something out there for me to take out into the street. It’s made from the entire spectrum of medicine from the smartest doctors and researchers to Mr. EMT.”

Tee said seeing what COVID-19 can do to people just at JFK alone heightens the importance of the vaccine in the fight against the virus.

“I know a lot of people need a hug right now so hopefully one day if everyone gets the shot we will be able to give people hugs again during this hard time,” he said.

He said along with the excellent job his fellow peers of doctors and nurses have been doing during the pandemic, his team has done an excellent job making sure patient rooms are disinfected correctly in efforts to stop the spread of the virus.

JFK Medical Center is one of four hub hospitals, which also include Jersey Shore University Medical Center, Ocean Medical Center and Hackensack University Medical Center, receiving doses of the vaccines. The hub hospitals will distribute to spokes, or the remaining acute care hospitals in HMH’s network.

JFK is distributing some 500 doses to Raritan Bay Medical Center Perth Amboy and Raritan Bay Medical Center Old Bridge on Dec. 18. The medical centers are prepared to begin vaccination immediately, initially to team members and physicians who wish to receive the vaccine as designated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

At this time, about 80% of HMH’s network front-line team members say they will get the vaccine. Others are taking a wait-and-see attitude and only a small percentage said they will not get vaccinated, hospital officials said.

Contact Kathy Chang at kchang@newspapermediagroup.com

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