On a sunny Wednesday a little over a month ago, my 7-year-old daughter bravely held my hand as we walked into Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City to participate in a pediatric vaccine trial.
After a numbing agent, a blood draw and a nasal swab, she was finally injected with either a placebo or the first dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine. She did it all without shedding a tear — quite an accomplishment for a little girl who once kicked a nurse while trying to fend off a dreaded needle.
We waited 30 minutes to ensure there were no adverse reactions and we were sent home to document our experience via a secured app.
Earlier this year when various outlets reported that Children’s Mercy had launched a registry for those interested in participating in the pediatric vaccine trial, I raced to volunteer her. I had not yet been able to get myself vaccinated when I signed her up for the trial.
I am sure there are some people who cannot fathom allowing their children to participate in medical research. I understand their hesitation.
I am not one of those parents.
Having contracted and survived COVID myself in December, I know first-hand the impact the long term side effects can continue to have long after the virus has left the body.
Since then, I’ve dealt with bouts of vertigo, waves of fatigue and a strange sensation that makes me feel like I need to periodically hold in deep breaths. I have friends who still haven’t completely recovered their sense of taste or report that everything now tastes like metal or garbage. I know others who have developed other strange and inexplicable health issues since recovering who are still trying to find an explanation and relief. I wanted my daughter to have some bit of protection against these possibilities.
When this coronavirus first hit, we knew little and the information roll out was chaotic at best. But with time and data, scientists have been able to determine a lot of factors with much more certainty. We now know that COVID can injure organs beyond the lungs. We know that the heart and brain can experience lasting damage. It can increase the chances of blood clots and weaken blood vessels. So many people do not realize that even though you may survive a mild bout with this virus, that doesn’t mean you’re out of the woods.
I understand that, as with any medical trial, there are risks. I fault nobody for having concerns. I had my own. I did an extensive amount of research about the safety of vaccine trials and about the process with which this particular vaccine was developed and approved for adults, and came to the conclusion that there was minimal chance of major side effects.
I had also participated in a number of medical trials for extra cash as a college student, so I was familiar with the safety standards and protocols. This was all within my level of comfort.
But beyond being okay with it as a mother, I also needed to know my daughter was okay with it herself.
We often discuss things like boundaries and consent, so it was important to me that she understood what a COVID vaccine trial would entail, and that she wanted to participate of her own free will.
I explained what was expected and told her about the possible risks. She asked if it would hurt, and I compared it to when she got a flu shot this past winter. She asked if it would help protect her from COVID. I told her it might, but that she might get a pretend shot instead, and we would just have to continue to be careful until we knew for sure.
Then, always the negotiator, my daughter used the trial as an opportunity to bribe me with her participation.
“If you buy me a new doll at Target, I’ll do it.”
It wasn’t a hard sell.
I decided to enroll my daughter in the trial because I trust scientists and doctors.
My father is immunocompromised, dealing with a rare form of leukemia, and I have close friends who also have compromised immune systems due to cancers and other chronic illnesses that once might have been considered a death sentence. The fact that they have treatments that at one point in time were experimental which now prolong the lives of those I love speaks volumes to the immeasurable contribution of medical research.
I trust the research and science because people I love have benefited from it. I have benefited from it. I know scientists and doctors personally who went into the profession because they truly care about public health and wanted a career doing something that would better the lives of people in their community. I just cannot believe that most medical professionals are participating in some great conspiracy for vague political or financial gains.
But mostly, I am choosing to trust the doctors and the scientists because, even though they may not have all the answers, I do not trust the virus.
I do not trust a virus that so many people claim is nothing but the flu.
I do not trust a virus that steals the senses of some people while others are left gasping for their last breath.
I do not trust a virus that kills some and leaves others unmarked.
I do not trust a virus that came to me in the form of varying symptoms, each day different than the last, completely unpredictable.
I do not trust a virus that still rears its ugly head in dizzy spells, waves of exhaustion, and moments with an empty memory.
The longer it takes for us to reach herd immunity, the more opportunities this virus has to mutate into a strain that is vaccine resistant, more deadly or more contagious, and put us right back at square one, in forced isolation, staring endlessly at screens.
I will do whatever it takes to avoid going back into that abyss.
For now, my daughter continues to wear her mask while she’s out in public, as do I. We’ll probably continue to do so right up until we are unblinded on the day before Christmas Eve and finally find out whether she received the vaccine or the placebo.
By the grace of God, she never tested positive during or after my bout with COVID, despite the fact that, as a single mother, she was in constant and close contact with me during my most contagious period. So now we take that bit of luck and we pass it on, in hopes that her small discomfort can help provide the necessary research and data to prove the safety and efficacy of this vaccine, and so that children around the world can finally be protected from this miserable virus.
Taylor Hirth is a freelance writer, public speaker, advocate for survivors of sexual violence, and regular contributor to the Missouri Independent, which first published this essay.