Leaning into Hope
My Vaccination Story…
My name is Dr. Abike James, and I am the vice chair for diversity, equity, and inclusion in the department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Penn.
I'm also a mom, wife, daughter, sibling of Nigerian and Guyanese descent. I chose to get the COVID-19 vaccine for my family, my community, my patients, and to be an example in the face of debilitating mistrust amongst Black and Brown individuals about the vaccine and its potential effects.
I'm the middle daughter of five children. The morning after my first shot, I had an intense argument with my siblings who are scattered across the globe. My elation about receiving the vaccine was met with reprimand from two of my siblings, telling me to just make sure I did not influence our mother to get it. That under no circumstance should she be used as a guinea pig. I was devastated. My high became a low. My mother is the highest risk amongst us, and in my opinion should get it. The isolation during the first part of the pandemic, when she couldn't see her children or grandchildren, was too much. We could see the depression set in and I made the decision to bring her back into my bubble. But every day since then, I've walked around with the fear that as a health care provider, I could bring COVID to her and the rest of my family.
If you asked me three months ago would I get the vaccine, I would have said ‘No.’ It was too new and we didn't know enough. But then the third surge of COVID 19 cases hit right around Thanksgiving. Staff I work with got COVID. A dear patient of mine lost her mother to COVID. Family members had significant exposures. I felt as if COVID was crowding in on me. That it was just a matter of time. I felt hopeless. Would I have to return my mother to her isolation? Would this go on forever?
It is right around that time that news reports were suggesting the COVID-19 vaccine would soon be available. Now I had a glimmer of hope. I have the privilege of working at Penn with access to experts in research, and trusted friends and colleagues to lean on. I talked to the experts, I did my research, I listened. I learned that while the vaccine was new, the technology was not. I learned about where the first trials were done, in the UK and Germany -- not Africa, as was rumored. I read about the side effects, most of which were mild to moderate, and most importantly, resolved rapidly. I believed the science. The vaccine was safe and effective. It prevented disease with 95% efficacy, and severe disease with 100% efficacy. This sounded much better than leaving it up to chance. I was sold, but some of my family members clearly were not, and it soon became apparent that there wasn't just hesitancy amongst my family. It was matched by hesitancy amongst my Black colleagues, friends, staff at work -- literally everywhere I turned. I understood why.
There have been terrible injustices against Black and Brown people in the US and across the African diaspora, in healthcare and beyond, and the trust just isn't there. But the COVID-19 vaccine is different. We've been fortunate to have Black scientists involved in the technology behind vaccine development, and involved in vaccine trials. We've not been guinea pigs this time. I balanced this knowledge with the reality of the COVID-19 pandemic itself. The legacy of systemic racism in Black and Brown communities, and in healthcare, created fertile ground for this pandemic to disproportionately ravage people of color. We’re getting sick and dying at higher rates than our white counterparts.
Ethnic and racial disparities already pervade my specialty of Obstetrics and Gynecology. Black and Brown people have poorer family planning and gynecologic access, higher cancer rates, and worse obstetrical outcomes, including higher preterm birth and maternal mortality.
If as Black and Brown individuals with access to the vaccine, we turn around and then decline it, where does this leave us in a few years? Our communities are losing so many lives to COVID-19. What happens when COVID-19 slows down for the vaccinated community, and continues for the non-vaccinated?
So, I made my decision. I leaned into hope. I got my shots. I was amazed to see myself surrounded by colleagues, many of whom were Black and Brown, there for their shot also. We bonded by this opportunity to receive our shots together.
My mother is patiently awaiting her shot. Two of my siblings may still need more time. But that’s OK. I feel privileged that I could share with them, and I intend to keep the conversation going.
As a community we have to be all in. We cannot afford to continue to lose those nearest and dearest to us. And we cannot afford to let the divide continue to grow.
The Penn Medicine Listening Lab is a storytelling initiative that embraces the power of listening as a form of care. While the stories featured here aspire to uplift and empower, they may also describe experiences of trauma and suffering. We recognize that listening can be a vulnerable experience and offer resources at Penn Medicine and beyond through our website for those in need of support.