by Roy Fisher
When I first thought about getting vaccinated, it wasn’t about whether I would or not, it was about when. I did not want to be part of the initial rollout, figuring some kinks would need to be worked out. I likened it to getting the newest cell phone when they’re released. The first edition consistently seems to have something not quite right but then they get it figured out over subsequent releases. I thought the vaccine would follow a similar course. Let’s get the first year under our belts and see what kind of outcomes there are. No way did I think there would be an effective vaccine available in 2020.
Back in the summer, Kaiser sent out a mass email to members looking for volunteers to participate in the Moderna vaccine study. When I initially received the email, I said to myself: “No chance! No way was I going to be anyone’s guinea pig. Black people have been experimented on too much! I don’t even get the flu shot.” I did not immediately delete the email though, but let it sit in my inbox.
I came back to it several days later and did some deeper thinking. As a therapist, I cannot ask others to reflect on their lives without being willing to do the same thing. It is 100% true that Black folks and the medical system have long had a conflictual relationship. Whether it was Tuskegee, Henrietta Lacks and her cells being used without consent (or compensation), or any of the other host of ways we have been victimized … it makes sense why we are less likely to seek out treatment or why we would be hesitant to take the vaccine.
We are also dying in disproportionate numbers … so I continued to reflect.
In psychological terms, what I was experiencing is called cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is used to describe the mental discomfort that results from holding two conflicting beliefs, values, or attitudes. On one end, I am a Black man who is aware of our history and has my own experiences of doctors who would often do and/or say anything to ensure that my teammates or I could perform on the basketball court. On the other end, I am a mental health professional who recognizes that we are not well represented in clinical trials and that’s an issue. The problem with these types of studies is that we see a high percentage of white people and low representation of racial minorities. The issue with this? Our experiences are not reflected in the clinical data. Without adequate representation, the results don’t fully tell the story.
According to cognitive dissonance theory, in order to reduce the dissonance, the person experiencing the discomfort alters their beliefs or behaviors to reduce the discomfort and restore balance. How am I supposed to reconcile these competing beliefs and find balance? The field of mental health also has a long history of maltreatment of members of the BIPOC community. I have spent a large portion of my career challenging those in my field to reconsider how we conceptualize our theories and interventions in relation to our work with folks who identify as BIPOC.
Which brings me back to the vaccine … I could not in good conscience rail against a system, then when given the opportunity, not do my part to address that same system. I spoke to my wife about where my head was. I thought about the work I do and what I believe I stand for and ultimately decided to volunteer for the study. Then I had to deal with the fear — just because I addressed the dissonance, it did not alleviate the fear. I have a quote from Audre Lorde in my office that often brings me peace:
“When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.”
Kaiser accepted me in the fall. It was a blind study, meaning that I had no idea whether I was getting two doses of the vaccine or two doses of the placebo. After each dose I completed an online diary about any side effects experienced, i.e., pain/swelling/redness around the injection site, chills, fever, body aches, headache, or nausea. I took the first shot in November without feeling much of anything. My arm was a little sore, but I chalked that up to just having a needle jammed in my arm. There were no other symptoms.
The second shot in December was another story. The day after the shot, I woke up with a slight headache. I have a history of migraines so I thought that might be it — it’s not like our lives haven’t been stressful! As the day wore on, my headache got worse. By midday, I started to get the chills, and my body ached. I won’t minimize it — the body aches were no joke. All my basketball injuries were at level 10, my ankle was on fire, my knee and shoulder felt like someone had hit me with a bat. If I wasn’t working from home, I definitely would have taken the day off and curled up in bed. By the time my wife got home from work, I was running a low-grade fever (100.7) that remained for a few hours. Based on the questions in the diary, I had a decent idea I got the vaccine instead of the placebo but didn’t know for sure. I woke up the next morning without the fever or any lingering symptoms from the day before.
At the beginning of this year, Kaiser sent another email informing me that they had been authorized to unblind the study if the participant wanted. Ummm, yes please … of course I wanted answers. I wanted to be able to tell the story from beginning to end. I went in on Feb. 1 and found out that I had received the vaccine. Considering what I’ve read/seen/heard about this virus, my 20-ish hours of symptoms were a good tradeoff in my book.
I have had many conversations with people who say they don’t plan on getting the vaccine, and I understand the hesitancy. The reason I’m sharing this with you, and thanks for reading, is because I know there are many people who continue to have reservations about the vaccine. My goal is not to change people’s minds but to provide information, to share my process and journey, and let folks make informed decisions.
My decision was based on my desire to find ways, big or small, to support our communities. I did this for people who look like me. I wanted the data, in the ways I could, to be a representation of our experiences of our bodies. We have been yelling at the system to pay attention to us, to see us, to acknowledge that we matter, to recognize our contributions — this was my way of ensuring that, at least in this area I would be seen/heard and hopefully that would benefit others.
Roy Fisher is a South Seattle-based therapist.
Featured image is attributed to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority of the State of New York (under a Creative Commons 2.0 license).
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