Ethics and Leadership

Vax Populi: A Dispatch From the VA

Yesterday morning, volunteering at the COVID vaccination center in the hulking Veterans Administration hospital on our city’s south side, I offered a supporting arm under the elbow of a bent and broken warrior.

“Vietnam” on his cap, oxygen tank in a camo backpack over his stooped shoulders, cane in a trembling hand -- he was so wracked with COPD that he could not shuffle unaided the twenty feet to the check-in desk from the arrival door – his determination to get the vaccine having brought him only that far.

Here for context:

Back in early February, the only side effect after my own first Pfizer shot was a full-body wave of relief, optimism and gratitude.

Among the very few benefits of advancing age, my priority group was right behind the first responders. That, along with the privilege of readily available medical care, put me well up the queue. After my no-wait, no-pain jab, came an emotional challenge: since we are not all safe until everyone is safe, how in good conscience could I not put some of my discretionary time into support for the broadest and fastest distribution?

A quick web search led me to the coordinator of volunteer services at the VA, where the vax site was up to speed at around 600 doses a day, and expanding its initial access for the 80-year-olds down to age seventy.

I’m now six weeks as a member of a red-shirted team of volunteers. Working in shifts of six to eight, we take stations at the corners and the corridors that are points of confusion. We answer questions, relieve anxieties, and mainly manage the traffic flow from curbside to paperwork, onward to the actual shots, the necessary recovery/waiting area and eventual discharge.

It is affecting, to be with these vets. Nearly all black and brown men, they fully display the grim array of their conditions – service-sustained as well as the obvious weight, both literal and figurative, of lifetimes of economic, educational and life-style inflictions.

They know the VA. It’s a familiar venue, for which they come fraternally dressed. Most wear caps, jackets or insignia that identify their branch and era of service; the others sport the gear of a local team. Accustomed by their military training and culture to stand or sit with patience in the inevitable waiting lines, they pass the time establishing with total strangers the instant comradeship of their shared experience.

From my first day, helping the process of disciplined but slow and painful steps, I was struck to estimate that well over a third come with canes, walkers or wheel chairs, or on the arm of a spouse or child or caregiver – a proportion of mobility impairments unknown in my own daily bubble.

My puzzlement was schooled by a fellow volunteer – a steely veteran of the first Iraq war. Army Airborne, she said with pride, backing her claim of 26 jumps with a display of scars and attitude that left no room for doubt. “Unless you’ve been there, you can’t imagine,” she said. “The training alone ruins your body. Deployment in the desert—you breathe 24/7 a combination of sand and poison from the oil fields sabotaged by Saddam Hussein. These guys’ lungs and hearts are devastated.”  

The contrast was striking. In my own zip code, physical exertions at the gym or tennis court or ski slope are the antidotes to life at a desk. Orthopedic worry is whether a knee replacement induced by one too many Sunday 10K runs would be reconditioned in time for the paddle tennis season at the country club; with age-rated vax rates approaching 90%, a leading source of pandemic anxiety is the availability of a landing slot for the private jet escaping to the vacation home at the beach.

Not so at the VA, where tired and hurting heroes come for succor, having been put into uniform and harm’s way to make body-and-spirit breaking sacrifices for the sake of our country and its ideals.

They are not only our nation’s deserving – they are the exposed. Their working days are over, but their daily support is provided by children and grand-children -- themselves the central strands that weave our social and economic tapestry: the nurses and orderlies, teachers and waiters and truckers and bus drivers who put their own lives and safety on the front lines of the pandemic campaign.

The VA’s site, now open to all ages and including spouses and widows, is scheduled through the spring. By that time America will have acted according to our national character – corruptly mis-led and inept early on, roaring back with energy and commitment at an over-whelming level, only to tail off into dosage over-production and vast empty delivery sites.

As for the long process of recovery, we will by then finally reach what Winston Churchill called “the end of the beginning.” Except there will linger an unreached percentage of the population whose resistance will inflict a residual level of infections and fatalities, avoidable in theory and aspiration but tragically to be suffered out of a toxic and politicized combination of ignorance and bigotry.

The enfeebled veteran with whom this story started, along with his health-blasted comrades, placed on the altar of patriotism their youth and their healthy adulthoods, to defend principles both precious and complex -- including the right to persist in selfish disregard for the wondrous accomplishments of medical science and the collective good practices that would ameliorate our still-running miseries.  

We are obliged to respect that right – but neither its legitimacy nor those who assert it.

The good pandemic news is that not all the news is bad. Real spring has arrived in our region. Baseball is back. Six-figure vaccination doses are delivered in the state every day. At the VA, at-risk veterans are being cared for in their latter, pain-ridden years.

If you haven’t yet got your shot, you have no excuse – if for no other reason than the safety of your family and friends, colleagues and clients.

And if it’s been a while since you bumped elbows with a veteran and said “thank you,” now would be a good time.


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  • © 2007-2024 James R Peterson Special thanks: Francine McKenna. Always with love: Kat and Julie. In memory: Bob White, Stuart Kadison