My Gift To You

Buck Goldstein
Entrepreneur in Residence and Professor of the Practice UNC-Chapel Hill

I have never been accused of growing old gracefully. I was annoyed when AARP started sending marketing materials and I consider even minor physical limitations a personal challenge. I have another admission. I hate standing in line. When it became apparent that being old meant Kay and I would be moved to the front of the vaccine line, I was ecstatic. I never dreamed we would be fully vaccinated by early February. Having been given the gift of early vaccination and knowing most of my readers are still waiting in line, I want to share what I have learned a week after entering this new state of being. Spoiler alert: it is all good news.

We got the Pfizer vaccine and had minimal side effects. After the second dose, we had a day of downtime, low-grade fever, and a sore arm. Frankly, the side effects were comforting because it suggested that the vaccine was doing its thing and we were developing antibodies.

The reality of being fully vaccinated opened a welcome conversation with family and friends. What are appropriate protocols as fully vaccinated individuals once we achieve maximum immunity in another few days? The easy part is to continue wearing masks in public, mostly for symbolic reasons, socially distance, and continue handwashing. Beyond these basics, the conversation becomes more complicated. Ultimately, I have come to understand there is no right answer. The only right answer for you and your family is guided by your tolerance for risk and the understanding that none of the decisions we make about our daily lives is entirely risk-free. We decided it was safe to re-enter a pod with our immediate family comprised of three fully vaccinated adults, one unvaccinated adult two adults in a blind trial with a 70% chance of being vaccinated, and three children 5 or under. We have also decided it is okay to be indoors with small groups of close friends who have also been vaccinated. Our daily errands are less restrictive, but we are not going indoors to grocery stores and other commercial establishments for more than a few minutes. No movie theaters, indoor dining, or public events until more folks have been vaccinated. The toughest decision we are facing is when to fly to Los Angeles to see our son and his fiancé who just became engaged. Of course, balancing risk against the promise of a saner life will be an ongoing process.

The big news, and the reason for writing this blog, is the unexpected psychological effect of being vaccinated. One friend described it this way: “After the first shot, I knew what day it was. After the second, I found my glasses.” For me, two days after the second shot, the walls of denial began to crumble. I began to understand the incredible toll living with Covid had taken on my physical and mental health. My mindset over the past year has been to stay positive and grateful. Our family remained healthy, none of us lost our job and we were not required to put ourselves at risk. As I saw it, I had no right to be sick or depressed or lost because I had been spared the worst of it. Much to my surprise, after being vaccinated, I am beginning to understand the constant state of fear and uncertainty I have been living with and the toll it has taken.

The insight came first on my daily walk. I walked outside the door without going through a mental checklist of things I needed to do to stay safe. Even with a mask hanging around my neck, for the first time in months, I wasn’t worried about dying or transmitting the virus to someone else. A whole section of my brain that was always on high alert was freed up for more productive pursuits. I noticed I was walking faster and thinking about how to extend the distance. I considered when it would be safe to begin swimming which was formerly a big part of my exercise regime. I started to think about my twin grandsons' first birthday party and a lunch date with a colleague and a small dinner party with friends. The everyday events that give me energy and enthusiasm were creeping back into my life. I also began thinking about projects that had a time horizon of more than a few days. Toward the end of the walk, I met a friend I hadn’t seen for a year and the encounter was transformational. The fear of getting too close was replaced with the joy of talking about what comes next. I could be me again.

The joy extended beyond the walk. My health is better. I sleep through the night without the use of pharmaceuticals. I just made an appointment to get a new campus ID (my old one finally wore out), and I get things done in a day that formerly took a week. I read the papers and follow events of the day with interest but not existential dread. I go to the wine store thinking about the wine I am picking up instead of the mistake I might make that would endanger me or my family.

Of course, the first week may be a bit euphoric and some of the flow will diminish over time. Fortunately, my wife Kay is around to calm things down and remind me we need to consider one step at a time, as the world is still dangerous and uncertain and we must continue to respect the deadly virus. But for those of you waiting for a vaccine, what is coming may well exceed your expectations. Only after you have been vaccinated can you begin to understand the extent of the weight that has been lifted. Only then can everyday joy become real and not just an aspiration. Only then can you become you again.


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