The bell rang but I didn’t hear it. I’d been vaccinated — the first shot — and I was verklempt. Maybe I’d survive.
Living in Woodstock, where there’s less snow than when I first moved here, but more than in the city during the winter, the big chain pharmacy was boycotted for two years but survived. Then there’s the Village Apothecary, all by itself. Dr. Neal has been at its helm since Day 1, and as soon as notice went out that vaccines were going to be made available he signed on to be an administrator.
I knew that I wanted to be vaccinated by Dr. Neal. He’d been my pharmacist for as long as the Apothecary has existed, and he was part of my medical family. I didn’t want to go to the big center that would be administering vaccinations in Kingston — not that I even approached getting on their list. Hours on my computer left me frustrated and frightened that it might never happen, and I know I wasn’t alone in feeling this way. So I got on Dr. Neal’s waiting list, where waiting seemed more hopeful, even if the number of doses he’d likely receive would be less than what the county could expect. On Facebook he was a cheerleader—the impossible would become possible if not now, then.
His first one hundred doses seemed to ride in on a rumor, gone before most anyone had heard it— even in a town where everyone knows someone. A week later, his waiting list received an email alert that there’d be a delivery of vaccines, and we should be on standby alert. This was worse than anticipating a boyfriend’s phone call (or text), someone said. Whether the delivery would be on Wednesday or Thursday wasn’t known.
What about people who don’t live by their computers, or who find this kind of communication challenging? Even for someone like me, who lives hunched over her laptop, navigating the process was daunting. When I’m preparing dinner is one of the rare times I’m separated from my laptop—which was when the email arrived. Glancing at my iPhone I saw the message, SIGN UP NOW! “Sign Up Now,” I said to myself. “Sign Up Now.” You know how it is when you’ve been waiting for something to come about, hopeful and on edge at the same time, but you’ve become numb with anticipation. That’s what happened to me. Luckily, soon enough I was flying up the stairs to my computer, answering questions I’d answered before, to make sure I wasn’t a vaccine risk. I dithered for a minute about what time slot I wanted. Was I crazy? Did it matter? And that was that. My world changed in that moment.
The Woodstock Community Center was the locus for Dr. Neal and his army of volunteers to set up shop. Doors opened on Wednesday at 1 p.m., with five-minute slots allocated for four arms each. Waiting outside for my time to be called, the wind whipping mercilessly, I didn’t know I’d start crying as soon as I entered the room. My time slot was 3:05–3:10 so my best guesstimate is that I was about the one-hundredth arm that Dr. Neal stuck that day. The one-hundredth time that he rang the bell announcing another person had received the vaccination. “Every time somebody gets a shot, this is a celebration, we need to be partying,” Dr. Neal said.
Staying the requisite 15 minutes to make sure I didn’t have a negative reaction, I would’ve sat there all afternoon. I was one of almost 240 people for whom the bell rang on January 20. Two hundred forty people who I imagine went home a little more at ease than when they’d started their day.
Dr. Neal posted on Facebook: “That brings us to 360 community members I have personally injected a little sanity and relief back into their lives in a seven day period.” He’s right about that.
With the needle’s prick, the leaden blanket the pandemic had thrown over me—and I probably wasn’t alone—began to lift. Already I’m beginning to think of the future in a way that I haven’t in months. I’d walked around saying that the restrictions to my lifestyle weren’t such a big deal. The big deal was wondering whether I’d get sick, maybe really sick. Maybe die. That’s a big deal. I wasn’t alone in worrying about whether I might die from this disease, which in so many ways was inexplicable in its expression—hovering, phantom-like, overall.
By the next week, Dr. Neal would inject 1,204 arms in four days of clinics over three weeks. He had 1,500 people on the waiting list, and 3,000 hits to the site within the first 15 minutes. Feelings of desperation and panic set in as you scramble to get lucky. He’d put together the infrastructure in 12 hours that’s made this possible. Dr. Neal readily admitted, “I’m a big mouth,” and he’d put that big mouth to good use —vaccine roll-out. A local, independent holistic pharmacy in a small upstate town was leading the charge, offering a how-to model for Covid vaccination procedures.
Our town, populated by aging hippies — who pretty much are computer savvy and can drive — in a sense we’re easy targets. Taking the show on the road, Dr. Neal has been visiting churches in nearby communities vaccinating those who don’t get around easily. While this may be the most challenging thing he’s ever done, the rewards, he says, are exponential. “To give people this gift—everyone is crying.”
But, now, for some reason Dr. Neal and the Village Apothecary aren’t getting any more first dose allotments. Not since the big chains came on board. For a pool of thousands waiting, which is constantly expanding without the capacity to meet the demands, the stories I’ve heard indicate that their process can best be described as a nightmare. The promise of the vaccine feels intangible, heightening the anxiety and hopelessness that this will never end.
Against the backdrop of the recent advice to double-mask my vaccination seems even timelier. Four weeks later, on Thursday, February 17 I got to hear the bell ring a second time with my second dose, one of the 360 lucky ones that day.