On December 18th, 2020, I received my first dose of the Pfizer mRNA vaccine against SARS-CoV-2. On January 9th, 2021, I received my second. I am now a CDC-card-carrying, fully vaccinated person.
The build-up to the first dose was momentous. I was scheduled for the first dose of the morning. Our vaccine clinic was abuzz with excitement and hope, and some media folks were there to capture the moment. A couple of fellow emergency physicians were in the same cohort of recipients as I; we exchanged virtual high-fives and took a picture of socially distanced hugs. It was, after all, the closest thing we'd had to a celebration in months.
I walked in the vaccine administration room with anticipation – it was tough to believe this moment was truly, finally here. I got a little video of my getting the shot, took my obligate vaccine selfie, waited in the observation area for 15 minutes to ensure I didn't have a reaction, and then proudly joined 1000s of fellow healthcare workers across the country in posting #ThisIsMyShot on social media. "Here we go, America!"
The first shot, though, didn't actually do all that much for me. It hurt less than a flu shot (which, by the way, doesn't hurt much). I had virtually no side effects. I also knew that it did not yet protect me. The Pfizer (and Moderna) data show very clearly that although the immune response starts to grow 10-12 days after the first shot, one doesn't reach full protection against COVID-19 until much later.
So when, two days after my first shot, I headed back to work in the emergency department, I kept wondering "Will this be the day that I get sick? Wouldn't that be ironic!" Although I never go without an N95 during patient care, it just takes one slip – scratching one's eyes, eating lunch in a break room that an infected colleague had just been in – to get ill. Ten months into this pandemic, it is so easy to get fatigued, to make a small error just one time.
Indeed, I had a few colleagues fall ill in between their first and second shots; one was hospitalized. This was not surprising, but still sad, given how close they had come to escaping infection.
Scientifically speaking, one doesn't need to feel bad to develop an immune response. Emotionally, though, I welcomed the symptoms as proof positive that I would be protected.
This time period felt a little like we had our learner's permit for driving: we were on our way to being safe, but not quite there yet.
I also watched, with dismay, our failures as a nation at timely distribution of the vaccine. On December 18th, despite the logistical snafus that many of us had started to highlight, it was still somewhat believable that we would at least distribute (if not actually administer) 20 million doses by the New Year. But by December 31, my worst fears about the feds' lack of planning had been realized. Only 14 million doses had gone to states, and fewer than 3 million had been administered. Within the public health and medical community, we began to debate how to handle the shortages and slow vaccination rates: should we change prioritization schemes? Get rid of the second dose, in contradiction to what our FDA had approved?
Let me be clear: I really, really, really wanted my second dose. It is what is supported by the data. After living this long at risk, it felt frankly unfair that I might not get fully protected. I waited with trepidation, afraid that policies would shift before I got it in my arm.
At last, my date for my second shot arrived.
This shot was a little less momentous on the outside. The vaccine clinic was much more crowded, as we were now administering first doses to more people, as well as providing the second dose to many. There were no high fives, no media, and I took no selfies. I finished my observation period without trouble (as did everyone else vaccinated the same day, as is typical for these vaccines). I walked out the door planning to spend a nice afternoon outdoors with my kids.
Within 15 minutes, though, the very common side effects – reported by 80% of people my age after the second dose – began to appear. First I got a headache (like 52% of people my age), then body aches (37%), fatigue (59%), and chills (35%). I felt "foggy", like I was fighting something. Like 45% of trial participants who had received the actual vaccine, I took acetaminophen and ibuprofen to stave off the symptoms. There is some minimal evidence from other vaccines that pre-treatment with these anti-inflammatories may reduce antibodies, but given that half of trial participants took these medications, there's no reason to make yourself suffer if you develop side effects. Forty-eight hours later, just in time for my next shift, the side effects magically cleared. Scientifically speaking, one doesn't need to feel bad to develop an immune response. Emotionally, though, I welcomed the symptoms as proof positive that I would be protected.
My reaction was truly typical. Although the media hype focuses on major negative reactions, they are – statistically speaking – tremendously rare: fewer than 11/million people who received the Pfizer vaccine, and 3/million who received the Moderna vaccine, developed anaphylaxis; of these, all were treated, and all are fine. Compare this with the fact that approximately 1200/million Americans have died of this virus. I'll choose the minor, temporary, utterly treatable side effects any day.
Now, more than 14 days after my second dose, the data says that my chance of getting really sick is, truly, infinitesimally low. I don't have to worry that each shift will put me into the hospital. I feel emotionally lighter, and a little bit like I have a secret super-power.
But I also know that we are not yet home free.
I may have my personal equivalent of Harry Potter's invisibility cloak – but we don't yet know whether it protects those around me, at all. As Dr. Fauci himself has written, while community spread is high, there is still a chance that I could be a carrier of infection to others. So I still wear my N95 at work, I still mask in public, and I still shower as soon as I get home from a shift and put my scrubs right in the washing machine to protect my husband and children. I also won't see my parents indoors until they, too, have been vaccinated.
At the end of the day, these vaccines are both amazing and life-changing, and not. My colleagues are getting sick less often, now that many of us are a week or more out from our second dose. I can do things (albeit still masked) that would simply not have been safe a month ago. These are small miracles, for which I am thankful. But like so many things in life, they would be better if shared with others. Only when my community is mostly vaccinated, will I breathe easy again.
My deepest hope is that we all have – and take - the chance to get our shots, soon. Because although the symbolism and effect of the vaccine is high, the experience itself was … not that big a deal.
Amber Freed felt she was the happiest mother on earth when she gave birth to twins in March 2017. But that euphoric feeling began to fade over the next few months, as she realized her son wasn't making the same developmental milestones as his sister. "I had a perfect benchmark because they were twins, and I saw that Maxwell was floppy—he didn't have muscle tone and couldn't hold his neck up," she recalls. At first doctors placated her with statements that boys sometimes develop slower than girls, but the difference was just too drastic. At 10 month old, Maxwell had never reached to grab a toy. In fact, he had never even used his hands.
Thinking that perhaps Maxwell couldn't see well, Freed took him to an ophthalmologist who was the first to confirm her worst fears. He didn't find Maxwell to have vision problems, but he thought there was something wrong with the boy's brain. He had seen similar cases before and they always turned out to be rare disorders, and always fatal. "Start preparing yourself for your child not to live," he had said.
Getting the diagnosis took months of painful, invasive procedures, as well as fighting with the health insurance to get the genetic testing approved. Finally, in June 2018, doctors at the Children's Hospital Colorado gave the Freeds their son's diagnosis—a genetic mutation so rare it didn't even have a name, just a bunch of letters jammed together into a word SLC6A1—same as the name of the mutated gene. The mutation, with only 40 cases known worldwide at the time, caused developmental disabilities, movement and speech disorders, and a debilitating form of epilepsy.
The doctors didn't know much about the disorder, but they said that Maxwell would also regress in his development when he turned three or four. They couldn't tell how long he would live. "Hopefully you would become an expert and educate us about it," they said, as they gave Freed a five-page paper on the SLC6A1 and told her to start calling scientists if she wanted to help her son in any way. When she Googled the name, nothing came up. She felt horrified. "Our disease was too rare to care."
Freed's husband, a 6'2'' college football player broke down in sobs and she realized that if anything could be done to help Maxwell, she'd have be the one to do it. "I understood that I had to fight like a mother," she says. "And a determined mother can do a lot of things."
The Freed family.
Courtesy Amber Freed
She quit her job as an equity analyst the day of the diagnosis and became a full-time SLC6A1 citizen scientist looking for researchers studying mutations of this gene. In the wee hours of the morning, she called scientists in Europe. As the day progressed, she called researchers on the East Coast, followed by the West in the afternoon. In the evening, she switched to Asia and Australia. She asked them the same question. "Can you help explain my gene and how do we fix it?"
Scientists need money to do research, so Freed launched Milestones for Maxwell fundraising campaign, and a SLC6A1 Connect patient advocacy nonprofit, dedicated to improving the lives of children and families battling this rare condition. And then it became clear that the mutation wasn't as rare as it seemed. As other parents began to discover her nonprofit, the number of known cases rose from 40 to 100, and later to 400, Freed says. "The disease is only rare until it messes with the wrong mother."
It took one mother to find another to start looking into what's happening inside Maxwell's brain. Freed came across Jeanne Paz, a Gladstone Institutes researcher who studies epilepsy with particular interest in absence or silent seizures—those that don't manifest by convulsions, but rather make patients absently stare into space—and that's one type of seizures Maxwell has. "It's like a brief period of silence in the brain during which the person doesn't pay attention to what's happening, and as soon as they come out of the seizure they are back to life," Paz explains. "It's like a pause button on consciousness." She was working to understand the underlying biology.
To understand how seizures begin, spread and stop, Paz uses optogenetics in mice. From words "genetic" and "optikós," which means visible in Greek, the optogenetics technique involves two steps. First, scientists introduce a light-sensitive gene into a specific brain cell type—for example into excitatory neurons that release glutamate, a neurotransmitter, which activates other cells in the brain. Then they implant a very thin optical fiber into the brain area where they forged these light-sensitive neurons. As they shine the light through the optical fiber, researchers can make excitatory neurons to release glutamate—or instead tell them to stop being active and "shut up". The ability to control what these neurons of interest do, quite literally sheds light onto where seizures start, how they propagate and what cells are involved in stopping them.
"Let's say a seizure started and we shine the light that reduces the activity of specific neurons," Paz explains. "If that stops the seizure, we know that activating those cells was necessary to maintain the seizure." Likewise, shutting down their activity will make the seizure stop.
Freed reached out to Paz in 2019 and the two women had an instant connection. They were both passionate about brain and seizures research, even if for different reasons. Freed asked Paz if she would study her son's seizures and Paz agreed.
To do that, Paz needed mice that carried the SLC6A1 mutation, so Freed found a company in China that created them to specs. The company replaced a mouse SLC6A1 gene with a human mutated one and shipped them over to Paz's lab. "We call them Maxwell mice," Paz says, "and we are now implanting electrodes into them to see which brain regions generate seizures." That would help them understand what goes wrong and what brain cells are malfunctioning in the SLC6A1 mice—and help scientists better understand what might cause seizures in children.
Bred to carry SLC6A1 mutation, these "Maxwell mice" will help better understand this debilitating genetic disease. (These mice are from Vanderbilt University, where researchers are also studying SLC6A1.)
Courtesy Amber Freed
This information—along with other research Amber is funding in other institutions—will inform the development of a novel genetic treatment, in which scientists would deploy a harmless virus to deliver a healthy, working copy of the SLC6A1 gene into the mice brains. They would likely deliver the therapeutic via a spinal tap infusion, and if it works and doesn't produce side effects in mice, the human trials will follow.
In the meantime, Freed is raising money to fund other research of various stop-gap measures. On April 22, 2021, she updated her Milestone for Maxwell page with a post that her nonprofit is funding yet another effort. It is a trial at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City, in which doctors will use an already FDA-approved drug, which was recently repurposed for the SLC6A1 condition to treat epilepsy in these children. "It will buy us time," Freed says—while the gene therapy effort progresses.
Freed is determined to beat SLC6A1 before it beats down her family. She hopes to put an end to this disease—and similar genetic diseases—once and for all. Her goal is not only to have scientists create a remedy, but also to add the mutation to a newborn screening panel. That way, children born with this condition in the future would receive gene therapy before they even leave the hospital.
"I don't want there to be another Maxwell Freed," she says, "and that's why I am fighting like a mother." The gene therapy trial still might be a few years away, but the Weill Cornell one aims to launch very soon—possibly around Mother's Day. This is yet another milestone for Maxwell, another baby step forward—and the best gift a mother can get.
This virtual event will convene leading scientific and medical experts to discuss the most pressing questions around the COVID-19 vaccines for children and teens. A public Q&A will follow the expert discussion.
Thursday, May 13th, 2021
12:30 p.m. - 1:45 p.m. EDT
Virtual on Zoom
You can submit a question for the speakers upon registering.
Dr. H. Dele Davies, M.D., MHCM
Senior Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs and Dean for Graduate Studies at the University of Nebraska Medical (UNMC). He is an internationally recognized expert in pediatric infectious diseases and a leader in community health.
Dr. Emily Oster, Ph.D.
Professor of Economics at Brown University. She is a best-selling author and parenting guru who has pioneered a method of assessing school safety.
Dr. Tina Q. Tan, M.D.
Professor of Pediatrics at the Feinberg School of Medicine, Northwestern University. She has been involved in several vaccine survey studies that examine the awareness, acceptance, barriers and utilization of recommended preventative vaccines.
Dr. Inci Yildirim, M.D., Ph.D., M.Sc.
Associate Professor of Pediatrics (Infectious Disease); Medical Director, Transplant Infectious Diseases at Yale School of Medicine; Associate Professor of Global Health, Yale Institute for Global Health. She is an investigator for the multi-institutional COVID-19 Prevention Network's (CoVPN) Moderna mRNA-1273 clinical trial for children 6 months to 12 years of age.
About the Event Series
This event is the second of a four-part series co-hosted by Leaps.org, the Aspen Institute Science & Society Program, and the Sabin–Aspen Vaccine Science & Policy Group, with generous support from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.