It only lasted a few seconds: Sleeve up, an alcohol swipe — you ready? — and then the shot. The vaccine. The first of two injections expected to keep Dr. Barry Aaronson safe from COVID-19.
But in those seconds, the internist’s mind raced across years and miles, as he focused on the thought, the hours and the effort to get the vaccine to him and others.
He didn’t feel anything — but gratitude.
“It was the official sighting of the light at the end of the tunnel,” said Aaronson, 60, who works at Virginia Mason Hospital & Seattle Medical Center and was vaccinated Dec. 27. “I had so much gratitude for the mountains of work that went into it. I thought about it before, I thought about it during and I thought about it after.”
So, Aaronson held up a homemade “thank you” sign as he received the vaccine, and afterward wrote a note of gratitude for the “remarkable chain of events” that made it possible for him to receive it.
It is heartfelt, but scientific; a Hallmark card inside a chemistry textbook that you read on your way to biology class.
“My gratitude starts with scientists who years before this pandemic, perfected the ability to extract DNA from viruses, sequence it and transcribe it to RNA,” Aaronson began.
He thanked the scientists who, years ago, “developed an ingenious animal model for mRNA vaccines.” He thanked those who, at the start of the year, “quickly identified a deadly novel coronavirus and to scientists who rapidly sequenced its villainous DNA.”
He thanked the scientists who identified the segment of that DNA that codes for the spike proteins that the virus uses to invade our cells; those who made the mRNA that corresponds to that DNA sequence, and those “who figured out how to create a lipid womb to protect that precious mRNA payload during its perilous journey from factory floor to the depths of our deltoid musculature.”
Aaronson knows it sounds a little wonky, but he also knows that developing a vaccine in less than a year is nothing short of a miracle, performed by a long chain of hundreds of people, intent on ending the spread of COVID-19, while its numbers grew by the day.
“There are so many steps along the way,” Aaronson said. “There is a whole chain of human toil that makes this possible. It’s so easy to walk in there, roll up your sleeve, take the shot and say, ‘Thank you.’
“But appreciating the incredible work and effort that made that shot possible,” he continued, then paused. “One little shot. There is so much upstream that had to happen first.”
Aaronson expressed gratitude to the people who volunteered for the Pfizer trial “with stakes so high”; the investigators who ran that trial and the scientists at Pfizer, the Food and Drug Administration and the Western Coalition who reviewed the data and approved the vaccine “without bowing to political pressure.”
But he didn’t just think about the scientists in that moment. He thought about the factory workers who manufactured the vaccine, the workers who made the equipment that those factories rely on, “and the pilots of planes and drivers of trucks who transported the vaccine to my hospital in Seattle, and to the workers who made those planes and trucks that carried that precious cargo.”
He gave thanks to the workers who devised the cold storage systems in which to store the vaccine, the workers who built them, “and the people who fed them and clothed them and housed them so that they could do this life saving work.”
And he thanked the leaders at Virginia Mason who devised the immunization plan, the ethicists who figured out who should go first, and the workers who made the glass vials to hold the vaccine, the precisely dosed plastic syringes and even the needles “so that there would be no pain whatsoever when those beautiful little mRNA filled lipid particles got injected into my left deltoid muscle by a highly skilled and compassionate nurse.”
“That’s probably just the tip of the iceberg,” Aaronson said. “Everything that went into it and all these people who played a role in one way or another. Thousands. Millions.
“Maybe their families are thanking them, or their friends,” he continued. “But in the eyes of the recipients of the vaccine, well, they are the ones not necessarily realizing all the people who contributed to that singular moment.”
The only job left belongs to nature, Aaronson said. It will cause his cells to transcribe the RNA into spike proteins, which will trigger his B- and T-cells to recognize “that nasty spike protein” as foreign if it shows up in his respiratory mucosa, where cells and antibodies and the chemicals they produce “would stomp that wretched virus down without me even knowing it or missing a beat.”
All he will do is live another day, he said, while not spreading the virus to those he loves and those he doesn’t, but may pass within a few feet of.
Everyone Aaronson works with has received their initial vaccination, and are waiting on their second and final dose.
“We’re pretty upbeat, that we can help these patients,” Aaronson said. “And a lot of people are getting vaccinated. Not as quickly as we would like it to be, but it’s pretty miraculous.
“The patients are doing better now than they were in the spring, and the outlook is excellent,” he said. “For me, it’s more about the people who are getting the shot, and realizing what went into it.
“We can’t take this for granted.”
Read Dr. Aaronson’s letter in full: