It was just a shot.
But to Laura Reindl, a respiratory therapist at Aurora St. Luke’s Medical Center in Milwaukee, it felt somehow bigger, a little like voting for the first time.
“I was just proud and excited to be part of this,” said Reindl, one of the first front-line health care workers to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.
“People wanted to know the reaction,” she said. “Honestly, for about 12 hours after the shot I had a sore arm. And that really is it. I tell that to people. I am not afraid of vaccines.”
She believes in the science.
Stay informed, she said. Talk to someone you trust, like your family physician. Look at the facts, not the myths that may be spread across the internet.
“I wish they could do it quicker,” she said of the push to vaccinate the country and stamp out the virus.
Reindl and other front-line workers have been through the coronavirus storm.
She’s 50, born into a small town in Maine. She found her career while on her way to art school when she suddenly realized that she didn’t want to be a starving artist. Her mom, a nurse, had her shadow a respiratory therapist.
“I fell in love with it,” she said.
She has been in the field for 31 years.
“I help manage the airway, mechanical ventilation, anything to do with cardiopulmonary, heart and lung,” she said.
She is cool under medical fire.
“We’re first responders to cardiac arrest in the hospital,” she said.
But nothing could have fully prepared her and others for these past months.
“I remember being in the ICU when the first patient arrived,” she said. “We were all terrified.”
They had to grow accustomed to working in personal protective equipment. Had to make sure they didn’t spread the virus. And they had to save patients, using all their skills to try to solve a deadly medical puzzle.
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Reindl also feared for her husband, Peter, an electrical engineer. In October 2019, he was diagnosed with peritoneal mesothelioma, a cancer that develops in the lining of the abdomen.
He underwent surgery last December and started chemotherapy in January.
For nearly four months, from March to June, they maintained social distance until his chemotherapy ended and his blood work normalized.
“I thought last year was bad and this year kind of made my head spin,” she said. “My husband survived cancer and then there’s this.”
She’ll never forget a moment from earlier this year, rushing to an older patient who was on a ventilator and in distress. She’d have to manually ventilate him. Would she be able to do it without spreading the virus through aerosol droplets and perhaps putting herself in danger?
“It was one of those moments of pause that are very hard. This was this man’s life.”
She remembers seeing pictures of his “beautiful” grandchildren on a wall.
A doctor later told her she saved the man’s life.
One of her worst days came in the spring. A 21-year-old man was dying from the virus. His parents made the agonizing choice of withdrawing medical support. She hugged them and promised that she and two nurses would care for the young man in his final moments.
She returned to the patient. And turned off the ventilator.
Death came within minutes, but to Reindl, “it seemed like hours.”
“I know it happened hundreds of times, thousands of times in this COVID era,” she said. “This has been the biggest emotional and mentally draining part of this disease. There is no family. These patients are isolated and alone.”
There is no way to make up for such loss, she said, or the horror of the year.
But for those who have endured these months, there are things to hold on to. Families have grown closer, she said, even if only through Zoom chats or playing cards and board games.
“People gained time with each other,” she said. “I think it has really made everybody stop and look around and appreciate what they have, appreciate the day that they have.”