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Of vaccines and scaredy-cats

With the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines the world over and all the furor that comes with it, I cannot help but look back to my experience with vaccines as a child.

My earliest recollection of being vaccinated was in the early 1960s, when I was in sixth grade. I remember receiving two different vaccines around that time, one for smallpox and another for a strain of cholera called “El Tor,” although not in close succession. Back then, all I knew about these diseases was that they were deadly, and vaccines safeguarded us against them.

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The vaccinations were carried out on a school day. The pupils were not informed in advance, which was understandable, because no one would surely come to school if they knew. So the day would start normally, with nobody suspecting that we would soon be getting vaccine jabs. But, somehow or other, we would know about it as the hours wore on.

The medical team, if one could call it that, was composed of only two people—the town’s sanitary inspector and an assistant, usually a nurse or midwife. Together they made the rounds of the classrooms, the inspector looking quite intimidating in his crisp khaki uniform, and his assistant, also in her uniform, toting a rectangular black bag that contained the tools of her trade. Every so often, a harried-looking classmate would peer into the hallway to check if they were coming, but it was easy to tell that they were just around the corner by the antiseptic smell of alcohol wafting through the air.

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The waiting, the meantime, the in-between—oh, such agony! I was gripped by fear and anxiety as my mind conjured up nerve-racking thoughts of a long and sharp hypodermic needle boring through my skin, which would ooze a lot of blood, and the severe pain that I could not endure. If I were a daring spirit, I would have sprinted the short distance to my home, told my mother a white lie, and holed myself up in some corner until it was over. But I was a scaredy-cat, so I stayed rooted to my seat with my heart pounding, my knees shaking, and my stomach churning like crazy.

When the dreaded moment finally arrived, we were asked to stand in line and wait our turn. The boys, with their annoying bravado, went first, and we girls timidly lined up behind them. I positioned myself near the end of the line to delay my turn for as long as it took. As we girls looked on, some of the boys would deliberately put on an exaggerated grimace to show us how much it hurt, and although I knew they were only play-acting, it terrified me just the same.

The first girl in the line tried to put up a brave front, but she flinched when the needle pricked her skin, and the pained expression on her face when it was over made me even more nervous. I would keep moving to the back of the line, until there was nothing left for me to do but face the inevitable. Seeing the look of pure terror in my face, the nurse assured me it would only hurt a tiny bit, like an ant’s sting. Then she plunged the needle into my arm before I could say a word. And that was that.

Since then, I have gone through a host of medical and dental procedures, among them four childbirths and two major surgical operations, not to mention the inoculations against pneumonia and the flu, all of which involved injections or hypodermic needles. But there were no histrionics, no drama, no adverse incidents. Age and experience have certainly helped me face my fears and pains, including, perhaps, the prospect of a next vaccine.

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Delia T. Combista, 69, is a retired college professor.

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