25 March

My Hero: Kristen And Vaccine No. 2. The Front Lines

by Jon Katz

Kristen is my hero of the Spring and much of the year.

She works at the Walgreen pharmacy in my small town, and she administered a second Covid-19 vaccine this morning, setting the stage for my return to a somewhat normal and free life.

And I feel tired, and things ache.

I score in almost every category of Covid Risk, and I relish not feeling like so much of a target. It just feels lighter. And it will be freer.

I’m 73, and I have heart disease and diabetes. For almost all of my life, I never felt vulnerable. I was healthy and rarely had reason to see a doctor.

This year, I needed to be taken care of and more than once.

At the worst, there was always Maria, but much of the time, there was a nurse – always a woman in my case – to help me, comfort me, watch out for me.

They laughed at my jokes, encouraged me, came when I called.

I met Kristen a couple of years ago. She is one of the cadres of young women who work in the pharmacy.

When I think of the past year for me and many of us, I tend to think of women. I can’t make it, so they are paid well, I can’t promise them shorter hours or nice bosses, but I can thank them and appreciate them.

From groceries to hospitals to pharmacies, women on the front lines stepped forward at some risk to take care of people like me.

I know men stepped forward too, but it’s the women who come to mind. At the Mansion, at the pharmacy,  the supermarket, in the hospitals where I was, I always ran into women, many of them young, some of them old, who had tough jobs at low wages, but who like to take care of people.

When I think of this year, I think of people like Kristen. Somehow, they always seem to be there. They make the wheels go around.

I was wary of them at; first, Rite-Aid bought out our very wonderful local family-owned pharmacy, and then Walgreen bought them, and I remember thinking, this is what it must be like to deal with Microsoft.

Kristen and the bulk of the other workers who man the Walgreen Pharmacy are young and female. Many of them have small children who have been mostly at home the past year.

They work long hours under intense pressure, and just like the Mansion aides, they don’t make a lot of money.

I hardly knew them or talked to them during the first months of the pandemic. Much of my prescription management is online, and there was little time for chatting when I came to pick up my prescriptions.

They were all always busy. There was always someone waiting in line, waiting in the car prescription pick-up late, waiting on the phone, or standing in line. The phone was always ringing.

Over time, a curious thing happened. I had a bunch of surgeries last year and lots of prescriptions to handle. Things went wrong, got lost, requests were sent to the wrong doctors, or sometimes, I lost track of things, and medications ran out.

I needed these people to help me.

The health care system is an epic mess in the best of times, and nobody called 2020 the best of times. I had switched doctors and pharmacies, and it was an unusual week when I didn’t need to call Walgreen’s and talk to a pharmacist or aide like Kristen.

There are many front lines in this struggle. Some are in hospitals; others are in assisted care or grocery stories. One was – is – in my pharmacy.

Over time, I saw the idea of community reasserting itself. I came to know them; they came to know me. I made it a point to never yell at them, as I saw so many frustrated people do. I didn’t have to plead and bargain with them to buy just a few pills, rather than the whole order, because I was broke.

I made it a point not to require the soothing and commiserating that so many people seemed to demand these young women, who were trying very hard to do the best they could.

One day last Spring, an angry man was shouting and cursing at one of the Walgreen techs, cursing at her loudly over his medicines’ rising costs. The tech was almost in tears but trying to hold it together.

It happens all the time, the techs had told me. People just don’t know who else to yell at, they said,  and we are there all day, sitting ducks.

The man was at least half my age, and I was not in great shape at the time. He was in a rage.

I stepped forward and scolded him. “Look,” I said, “this is not her fault. I don’t think it’s right for you to be cursing at her like this.” He stopped and turned to me, and I thought he would slug me; he looked so furious.

But instead, he just stormed out of the store. When I got outside to my car parking lot, I saw he was waiting for me, and he came at me angrily. I thought about how I was determined to go down fighting, but I know it would not have been a long fight.

He cursed at me and called me more names. He told me he couldn’t afford to buy medicine any longer. I listened for a few minutes and nodded sympathetically.

He told me a horror story about how both of his parents were sick and dying, and he could not afford the medicines they needed.

He wasn’t looking to hurt me.

But why are you shouting at the Walgreen’s girls? I asked. It’s not their fault?

“Because none of these other people will talk to me,” he said, and then he got into his car and drove off. “Because I can’t do shit about it.”

Over time I got to know the Walgreens techs, and they got to know me; we always worked things out; I never once had the feeling I was bothering them or irritating them.

Then the pandemic. Things got even more complicated. My doctors told me to go to the car pickup, not to go into the store. Lines seemed to get longer, people irritable, even angry.

Politics and the pandemic teamed up to poisoned things. The first week of the pandemic, we were all in it together. Not for long.

Then politicians got into the act, and we were all fighting with one another about masks, vaccines, even the virus itself. Life got even harder for Kristen and her colleagues.

When the vaccines started coming out, things went from tense and grinding to crazy busy madness.

People were calling up all day asking about vaccines, trying to figure out how to get them for themselves or their parents, checking on times, trying to slide ahead of others.

I saw how tired these girls were, how drained, how pressured to take care of their kids and their jobs at the same time. Many of them told me that as chaotic as it was, they felt good to be serving the community, helping frightened and needy people, rather than just taking their money for their meds.

I get emotional about community. It matters.

What I most wanted was to get my vaccines at Walgreen’s in my town, where Kristen and the pharmacists and the other workers had been taking care of me all year, through the surgeries and the confusion and the constant changes and new regulations from the insurance companies and doctors.

I didn’t want to drive four hours to Rochester, as many of my neighbors were doing. I wanted to drive down the road three minutes away and get my vaccines from Walgreen’s techs and aides. in my home town.

They had been taking care of me all year. I trusted them.

At first, Walgreens didn’t have the vaccines, and I got anxious. Kristen and the others said not to worry; they would get vaccines soon. They were right.

A month ago, I went on Walgreens.com and saw my local pharmacy had vaccines and available time slots. I got my first shot right away; I had no trouble signing up. Today I got my second and last shot.

Freedom looms.

Last night, Maria got her first shot.

Today I brought a big bag full of locally-made chocolates into the pharmacy, chocolate bunnies, and white and black chocolate balls for the Walgreen heroes.

All year, I thought men and women – mostly women, I gather – took care of us in so many ways. These were not the scientists or researchers, but the people on the front lines, from nurses to supermarket clerks to nursing home aides pharmacy workers, who see many sick people.

They took care of our children, of the sick,  of the vulnerable people in nursing homes that no one else was paying attention to, and to people like me,  whose life really was on the line. I remember my cardiologist telling me early last year to be very careful.

“If you get this, you might well be a dead man,” she said. I wasn’t ready to leave Maria and the farm and the blog.

This morning, I thanked Kristen for giving me the final vaccines. I asked how she was doing.

“It’s hard work,” she said, “pretty crazy. But you know what? It feels good to be helping people. It’s worth it.” She looked very tired, even though her big mask.

She thanked me again for the chocolate candy I’ve been bringing. The caffeine in it was helpful, she said. It tasted good too.


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