Injection of Light: Hope Rebooted

"Of science and the human heart, there is no limit..." This week I received the single-dose Johnson & Johnson coronavirus vaccine—a miracle drug that replaced existential dread with expansive hope.

At 1:54 p.m., Tuesday, a nurse injected 0.5 mL of JNJ-78436735—the single-dose Johnson & Johnson coronavirus vaccine—into the deltoid muscle of my left arm.

I didn’t even notice the needle when it went in, tears of a relief too profound for words filling my eyes as I exhaled more deeply than I have in a full year.

It was almost as if, after 12 months of the time-space continuum warping and glitching and flattening, where every day felt like a gloomy Thursday afternoon, Someone Cosmic finally tried turning the whole thing off and on again, time synced, and the present came back online.

In an instant, hope rebooted.

“Oh my God, thank you,” I croaked to the nurse with the epic arm tattoo and the guy with the clipboard assisting her (who took the picture above) from behind my double-mask and plastic face shield. “Thank you so much. Thank you. Thank you.”

Thank you to them. Thank you to the scientists who created the medicine. Thank you to everyone involved in taking it from an idea in some clever person’s brain to the laboratory and clinical trials, to the manufacturing plants and truck drivers who drove it here, to the local health board and volunteers who set up the appointment system, and got the miraculous drug into my bloodstream.

Thank you God. Thank you Universe. Thank you Great Cloud of Witnesses.

Less than 30 seconds after I sat down at the vaccination station, I found myself walking toward a large area filled with white folding chairs, socially distanced individually and in pairs, where the recently vaccinated were asked to wait for 10–15 minutes in case we had any adverse reaction to the injection. I ambled toward the waiting area in a chimeral haze, in close proximity to more strangers than I had been since the afternoon I had brunch with a friend in Los Angeles exactly 12 months—to the hour, in fact—earlier, which was also the last time I’d stepped inside a restaurant.

While I still instinctively gave others a wider berth than I might have in early March 2020, the nearness of people who weren’t my life-partner of almost 25 years with whom I’ve been living in strict lockdown since last St. Patrick’s Day, their presence didn’t feel as menacing as it has to me for far too long.

I silently offered a few more prayers of thanksgiving, sent a selfie with my new vaccine card to my partner, my best friends, my son, and then after about 10 minutes and feeling absolutely fine, got up, walked out of the vaccination Super POD site, got into my car, and headed for home. The brilliant afternoon light felt somehow brighter, the air cleaner, sweeter, and filled with possibility, optimism, and jubilant gratitude for having been delivered from the oppressive pall of dread that has hung over the whole world during The Plague Year.

And all because of a miracle drug.

As I drove, the vaccine’s adenoviruses began making their way into cells throughout my body, building an internal force-field of immunity against the deadly COVID-19, U2’s song, “Miracle Drug,” played on the car stereo. The music, as it does, transported me to another place and time: The pharmacy in the largest women’s hospital in Lusaka, Zambia, that I visited on a reporting trip eight years ago. There I saw for the first time boxes of tenofovir disoproxil fumarate/efavirenz/emtricitabine, a generic form of the antiretroviral drug Atripla, that health officials around the world had taken to calling the “magic pill.”

Atripla is an antiretroviral drug used to slow the progression of HIV/AIDS in a single, daily dose of one pill. Made in India by a laboratory owned by the U.S. pharmaceutical company Mylan, which received FDA approval in 2009 to provide the single-dose daily pill to developing countries around the world through the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief or PEPFAR (established by then-President George W. Bush in 2003), the “magic pill” was a game-changer in the global fight against HIV/AIDS.

That drug solved what had felt like an insurmountable problem of distributing a complex cocktail of anti-HIV drugs, some of which needed to be kept refrigerated before they were administered, and given at specific times every day to some of the poorest and most remote places on earth. It hampered the battle against AIDS in the developing world and in sub-Saharan Africa in particular, for a generation.

With the dawn of that miraculous single-dose antiretroviral drug, testing positive for the human immunodeficiency virus was no longer a death sentence in Zambia or anywhere else where the pill was available, even among the poorest of the poor. Yes, some people still die from HIV/AIDS, but many millions more around the globe have been able to live with it because of that “magic pill” and others like it.

“Of science and the human heart, there is no limit,” Bono sang as I reminisced, driving toward home with what felt like a literal new lease on life. “Freedom has a scent, like the smell of a newborn baby’s head…”

I thought of the mothers and fathers I met one autumn morning inside a large circular mud-and-wattle hut while on assignment in Ethiopia in 2012. It was a community center of sorts, where the walls were decorated with white-wash handprints of children, and parents—some of whom traveled for days on foot to bring their offspring to the center to receive vaccines against preventable diseases such as diphtheria, pertussis and tetanus, and the viruses that cause hepatitis and polio—proudly showed visitors their children’s immunization cards.

I carry one of those immunization cards in my wallet now. Ask me and I’ll show you, humbly not proudly, and with fathomless gratitude.

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At that Ethiopian community health center, I recall being keenly aware of my absurd privilege—growing up and raising a child in a country where parents argue about the safety of vaccinating their children against diseases that have been eradicated (or all but) here, but against which parents elsewhere on the planet will gladly walk for days to get a dose of vaccine that would protect their children from life-threatening infections and suffering.

Those same thoughts about absurd privilege and obscene entitlement rushed through my mind again as I considered how lucky or blessed or however you might understand such beneficence I am to have the coronavirus vaccine coursing through my veins, while billions of other parents and children around the globe are waiting and will be for many more months.

Beneath the noise
Below the din
I hear a voice
It's whispering
In science and in medicine
I was a stranger
You took me in…

— U2, “Miracle Drug”

Everyone should have the chance to be vaccinated against this deadly disease.

Everyone. Everywhere.

That’s why I’m writing this. I want everyone to get vaccinated against this horrible virus as soon as humanly possible. So, if you, dear neighbor, have the opportunity to receive it, please take it.

Before I went for the vaccine, I asked a friend of mine who is an epidemiologist which vaccine she would take if given the choice between the three available in the United States: Moderna, Pfizer, or Johnson & Johnson.

“Take whichever one is in front of you,” she said. When I told her that I (crazily) had the choice of all three, she suggested, because of my immunocompromised health status, that I take J&J because it meant I had the best chance of being covered by the vaccine in the shortest amount of time. (J&J is a single-dose vaccine that experts say is supposed to provide optimal coverage against the coronavirus in 29 days. Pfizer is two doses, spaced three weeks apart; and Moderna is two doses spaced four weeks apart.)

Please take the one that’s offered to you as soon as it is. Scientists say they all work. And they’re all 100 percent better than nothing at all.

From my experience receiving the J&J jab, I can tell you this: It didn’t hurt. I had a very mild reaction. I was extremely tired and slept a lot for the first 36 hours and my arm was a tiny bit sore for a day or two after. My beloved partner, who received the Moderna vaccines last month, had some body aches, fatigue, and a headache for a few days after the second dose, but that’s it. In both cases, the “side effects” were hardly worse than some reactions we’ve had to a run-of-the-mill flu vaccine any given year. (And hey, you can hardly feel the microchip and the 5G reception is clear as a bell!…I’M JOKING. That’s all complete Qanonsense. Take the vaccine, fam. Herd immunity is our friend.)

Last night, President Biden announced plans to rapidly expand the availability and eligibility of the COVID-19 vaccines to millions more people in all 50 of our states, the territories, and tribal lands. By the end of May, he said, the vaccines should be available to every adult American, and by the Fourth of July, enough of us may have been vaccinated to allow us to gather safely in small groups to celebrate our independence—as a people and from the tyranny of the coronavirus.

Help is on the way, a searchlight cutting through the long darkness.

And the eternal hope of spring is here.

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