Last week I saw my grandmother for the first time since March 8, and while I wish I could say it was a joyful reunion, it was an anxiety-wrought adventure to get her the first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.
My grandmother, who I call Teta, is 79 and immigrated to Brooklyn with her children more than 40 years ago from Lebanon. She doesn’t speak much English and is not exactly tech savvy. So a few days after New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced vaccines were opening up to seniors, I called my uncle, her primary caretaker.
He had no idea what I was talking about and so the task of appointment hunting fell to me.
As a 27-year-old journalist whose job is to be on the internet, daily navigating government websites to seek information, I was under a very false impression that this process would be easy for me.
What unfolded after that call was the start of a stressful, anxiety-filled journey. I started to look online at the city’s vaccine website, but nothing had been updated to include the new policy that those 75 years and older could have access starting in two days.
My roommate, who was also working on getting her father an appointment, sent me a text the next evening: Appointments are open.
Each vaccine site on the city’s website had its own system — hospitals and vaccine sites run by the city or state had one system, pharmacies had their own. Some places were making appointments by calls only, while others had their own website login requirements. I made two different accounts on two different websites just to learn appointments were unavailable.
Whenever I chose a New York Health and Hospital location, a public health care system in New York City, I would have to fill out the same questionnaire over and over again, just for the little box for appointments to never load. And while I had a lot of my grandmother’s personal information, the website didn’t tell me what I’d need to have on hand and I scrambled to take photos of what documents I did have.
I could hear my roommate on the phone with her family trying to find an appointment too. Somewhere around 10:30 p.m. on a Sunday night, we both gave up.
About 15 minutes later, we were told appointments were open at Mount Sinai, another hospital network, which was not listed on the city website and had its own system. This was great for my roommate, whose father lived in Manhattan, but Teta lives in South Brooklyn, far from any Mount Sinai location.
“If I can get an appointment in Manhattan, would you be able to drive us?” I asked, on my third call with my uncle in 24 hours.
“Yeah, whatever you need,” he said.
This moment feels racked with privilege, because one of the assets my family has that many New York City families don’t have is access to a car. And I also have an employer that allowed me the privilege of taking a paid day off to go with my grandmother, who needed a translator and guide.
But by late Sunday evening, we had a day and time for Teta to get the first dose. My roommate’s father was scheduled for an appointment as well.
Anxiety comes in many forms, but mine is often desperate for control and preempting problems with solutions. I stuffed a tote with Clorox wipes, sanitizing wipes, a portable phone charger and hand sanitizer. I also packed a large scarf, in case I’d have to create a barrier for my grandmother (she wears a hijab and isn’t supposed to publicly bare her arms or shoulders).
It took us an hour to get to the hospital by car. My uncle, who is also at high risk of COVID-19 due to a cancer diagnosis a few years ago, would stay inside the car and wait for us.
After we entered the hospital and found the correct line (and had our temperatures checked), I could hear a confused elderly man argue with a hospital employee about being in the wrong line, apparently his third wrong line.
“I’m going to miss my appointment!” he told her.
“Everyone’s missing their appointments,” I heard the woman reply. “We’ve got 1,900 vaccinations to do today.”
About a year before isolation I noticed an increase in the severity of Teta’s arthritis. She had trouble standing for long periods of time even before the pandemic, but a year locked away in a small Brooklyn apartment did nothing to help her mobility. Her longest journey most days was from the bed to the kitchen.
She sat in a chair along the line for a while as I stood and waited, filling out a second form on my phone. Mount Sinai’s hospital staff was incredibly kind, coming around with an iPad to each person to help them fill out the city’s online form. After two requests, someone eventually found a wheelchair for my grandmother.
But the energy of the entire place felt chaotic and stressful. One employee told me that earlier that week there had been an hourslong wait that prompted people to fight, elderly citizens at that.
When the pharmacist eventually came out with the vaccine for Teta, I started to cry. The woman who would administer her shot asked if I was OK.
“I’m just so happy,” I told her.
My grandmother remained calm throughout the entire experience. When one of my aunts asked if she was scared, she asked in Arabic, "What is there to be afraid of?"
On the drive back to my grandmother’s apartment, it was hard for me to ignore the old factories in Sunset Park as we passed by. Teta used to work in one of those buildings when she first came to America, taking a bus at 5 a.m. to sew until the sun went down. We also drove past the hospital where I was born, where Teta held me for the first time.
The next day Mount Sinai announced it was canceling appointments through Tuesday due to a “sudden change in vaccine supply.” We managed to get in just under the wire, but I’m still worried about what will happen with my grandmother’s second dose though her appointment has been scheduled.
I know that my grandmother isn’t fully protected and that she still needs a second dose before I can even consider hugging or kissing her, but the relief that flooded over me seeing that needle was beyond what I can describe in words. I’m not sure what will happen tomorrow, but I hope every family can feel that sense of reassurance soon.