Wellness

9 Hours With A COVID Vaccine Event Volunteer

“I teared up probably every hour.”

JOSEPH PREZIOSO, Patrick Smith, Streeter Lecka, Chris Graythen, Andriy Onufriyenko, NurPhoto/Getty Images

When an email went out to Atrium Health employees saying they could volunteer at two mass COVID vaccination events — one in January at the Bank of America Stadium for first shots and another three weeks later in mid-February, at The Charlotte Motor Speedway for second doses of the vaccine — Meredith Dean wasted no time in signing up for both.

“To be part of that process and be part of the history was a no-brainer, and just such an exciting opportunity,” she tells Bustle. Dean, who’s the manager for Seacrest Studios at Levine Children's Hospital in Charlotte, North Carolina, says while she wasn’t giving out shots, she did enjoy being around the clinical process and getting to talk to so many patients.

She still can’t believe how many people came to each event. “It gets me choked up every time, even thinking about it,” says Dean, adding the first event had over 20,000 people and 16,000 at the second.

“I teared up probably every hour, just from interactions with older folks,” she says. “Coming from a millennial woman who really values my own grandparents, I just wanted my grandparents to be able to make it through this. And to hear from these older folks, ‘I just can't wait to hug my grandchildren again,’ ... gets me choked up every time, even thinking about it.”

Here, Dean takes us through her day volunteering at the drive-thru clinic at Charlotte Motor Speedway as she danced in the rain, stayed for an unplanned extra shift, and finally felt a sense of hope.

Saturday, February 12, 2021

7 a.m.: I'm someone who just hops in where I'm needed. It probably isn’t the station they intend to put me in at first, but I ask, "Hey, does anyone need any help here?" and jump in to help direct traffic. I have notecards to show people which direction to go for further questioning to get their second dose.

It’s freezing and raining nonstop. I don’t have an umbrella — just the Atrium Health-branded gloves and hat that were given to us to stay warm — but you don’t even care about the weather being part of this process and seeing everyone so happy. I do a lot of dancing to stay warm, and I think it makes people smile and also kind of takes their nerves away.

There's not much to directing traffic, but at the same time, it's so important to be able to get these people through really fast. No job is too small for me. I’m just happy to do it.

11:30 a.m: Next, I eat lunch in my car to stay warm. Bojangles is donated to us volunteers. It’s a popular fast-food chain — chicken and biscuits, very typically Southern. Shifts are typically six hours long. So lot of times volunteers will get their lunch and leave for the day, but at this point I decide I’m going to stay for two shifts instead of just one. They keep saying, "It's OK if you want a break or you want to go." But I don’t want to.

Noon: Next, I film Callie Dobbins, who’s the facility executive for Levine Children’s Hospital, for our internal newsletter called Catching Up With Callie. She gives an update that there will be 16,000 people vaccinated this weekend. Her title is facility executive, but she's pretty much the CEO of the hospital. It’s neat for all of us employees to see the head of our hospital support the community in this way. After the update, I get some good b-roll of her.

Despite it being such a weird world right now, I wanted to let them know that we're all human and I'm going to make them as comfortable as possible.

12:15 p.m.: Next, I’m moved to runner duty with my boss, Clay Locklear, to make sure all the bays — there are about 26 and you actually use the racetrack that NASCAR drivers normally drive on to get to them — are stocked with vaccines that are compliant with their expiration times. But pretty much as soon as my point person explains what I’ll be doing, that's when bay 7 says they need help. So I don’t even do runner duty at all. I immediately switch to that bay to become a helper and stay there for the rest of the day.

As a helper, I’m the first point of contact for each patient coming through in their car and I fill out their vaccine cards. There’s so much diversity in the patients arriving, which is absolutely beautiful to see. Some people show up with their whole families in the car, and one person has four corgis along for the ride.

As volunteers, we’re dancing the whole time to make people feel welcome. Everyone's nervous before they get a shot, so we try to make everyone feel really comfortable. And because this crew is mostly an older crowd, I say to some of them, "You look too young to get a vaccine here. You can't be getting a vaccine." There are a lot of veterans, so I make sure to thank them for their service as well. I always try to make conversation and look for some sort of connection point.

There’s one woman who I actually recognize from the Bank of America event — I filled out her vaccine card there, too. She has her dogs with her again, which is how I recognize her. She also remembers me. It’s so cool to be a part of her process, both times just by chance.

I love being a helper. I think it’s what I was meant to do because I'm an encourager, I'm a cheerleader. I'm someone who, even with my patients living in Children's Hospital, is to create a sense of normalcy. And that's what I’m trying to do with each of these cars that come through. Despite it being such a weird world right now, I want to let them know that we're all human and I'm going to make them as comfortable as possible.

4:15 p.m.: I leave a little earlier than other volunteers — most people on this shift stay until 7 — since I’ve been here for longer. As I walk to my car, I’m thinking about the bonds you end up creating with the people you work with at these events. At my bay, there were two nurses who work at my hospital whom I would've never met had it not been for this vaccination event. They told me volunteering made them emotional, because a lot of times patients aren't happy to see nurses because they don't want to be in the hospital in the first place. But every single person coming through today is so grateful to get this vaccine, and the nurses loved being around people who were thankful for what we were doing. They’re dealing with heavy stuff all the time, and this experience gives me even more respect for my coworkers.

I'm going to do everything I can to keep volunteering at these events. It brings a whole new faith in humanity. You see people on social media who are anti-vax or are spreading misinformation about COVID, but then you get to see thousands of people who are part of the solution — and it's a very hopeful kind of feeling.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.