What started as a COVID-19 vaccine appointment ended in a marriage proposal for two South Dakota health care workers.
Registered nurse Eric Vander Lee, 26, has been helping to administer COVID-19 vaccines at a hospital in the state, while his boyfriend of five years, Robbie Vargas-Cortes, 31, works as a paramedic.
When Vargas-Cortes came in to Lee's hospital for his scheduled vaccination appointment on Dec. 23, he had a surprise up his sleeve — literally. When Vargas-Cortes rolled up his shirt so Lee could give him the vaccine, Lee was shocked to find an engagement ring taped to his boyfriend's arm.
“It’s been kind of a crazy year, and you know it’s been a fun ride to have you in my life,” Vargas-Cortes told Vander Lee in a video of the proposal that has since gone viral.
“I saw tape, and I did not understand for like 30 seconds what was going on until finally it hit me,” Lee told NBC News. “It was just the happiest moment probably of my life.”
Lee said he later found out that Vargas-Cortes had been holding on to the ring for three years, waiting for the perfect moment to pop the big question.
Shortly after the surprise proposal, Lee shared an image of his new engagement ring on Instagram, writing, “As we usher Covid into history, I am so excited for the future."
Lee, who has experience working as a nurse in an intensive care unit, began volunteering to administer COVID-19 vaccines last month at Sanford Canton-Inwood Medical Center in southeastern South Dakota, near the Iowa border. Amid the death and suffering he has witnessed because of the pandemic, he said it is rewarding to help provide patients with a potentially life-saving vaccine.
“Giving that shot is like a sigh of relief," he said, adding that it's like "giving someone a shield — equipping them with something that’s potentially going to save them."
Helping others get vaccinated has also helped Lee cope with the loss of his grandfather Norman Vander Lee, who died at 86 in November after contracting COVID-19.
Lee said the response to Vargas-Cortes' viral proposal has brought a wave of positive responses, but he noted there have also been some homophobic trolls.
“We live in South Dakota, and it’s not a typically progressive state,” he lamented.
As the proposal video continues to garner attention, Lee said he hopes it makes a positive impact for South Dakota's LGBTQ community.
“That’s my main focus,” Lee said. “I just want people to know that if they feel hopeless, Robbie and I have been there. Both of us have felt hopeless about finding someone and actually finding someone to truly love. So I just want people to know that things can get better.”