Two Doctors Reflect on the Past Year
In December 2020, the first COVID-19 vaccination in the United States was administered. Gearing up for the largest-ever vaccine campaign, the country witnessed a symbolic turning point in our battle against the pandemic that has upended everyone's lives for over a year.
With three emergency authorized vaccines being distributed to states (at the time of this printing), two Missouri Baptist Medical Center physicians talk about how the virus has affected them and share their advice and hopes for the future.
Adapting to the Pandemic
Ashley Denmark, DO, BJC Medical Group family medicine physician, describes how her practice has changed in the year since the COVID-19 pandemic began. "Taking care of our patients throughout the pandemic has been our priority," she said. "People have lost jobs and are suffering financial and other personal losses. Besides talking to patients about their medical concerns, we also take time to speak with them about what they are going through so we can develop the best plan of care for each patient."
Dr. Denmark described how the pandemic also added a layer of coordination her office didn’t have before with integrating virtual appointments and essential safety measures like masking, handwashing, physical distancing and strict cleaning protocols between patients.
Abigail ("Abby") Chitwood, MD, BJC Medical Group obstetrician-gynecologist, agreed. "When the shutdowns began last year, there was a lot of adjusting to the safety precautions," she said. "Keeping patients safe was – and still is – our top priority."
During the pandemic, Dr. Denmark and Dr. Chitwood are like many in the local community who focus on bright moments each day, even though that's not always easy.
"Taking care of patients and making sure that they are comfortable during appointments as well as spending time with my husband and young son keeps me going," said Dr. Chitwood.
Dr. Denmark agreed that family is important and added that being there for patients has been rewarding, and moments with them are often the highlights in her day. "During recent hospital rounds, I sang ‘Happy Birthday’ with a little dance to help a patient celebrate her special day," she said. "Putting a smile on other people's faces and bringing them joy makes me happy."
Receiving the Vaccine
When the vaccine rollout began in December 2020, Dr. Chitwood and Dr. Denmark were in the first phase for vaccination as health care workers.
Dr. Chitwood received her first shot of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine on December 28, 2020, and experienced some soreness at the injection site, similar to other vaccinations she’s received in the past. "Before the next dose was due, I was exposed to COVID-19 and tested positive," she said.
After recovering from the virus, Dr. Chitwood received her second shot on January 18, 2021. "With my second dose, I had a fever, chills and overall muscle soreness. I was prepared for side effects after hearing what others had experienced," she recalled. Dr. Chitwood explained that she felt side effects for about 18 hours after the injection and within 36 hours she felt back to normal. "The side effects reminded me of a mild case of the flu and were milder than what I experienced when I had COVID."
Like Dr. Chitwood, Dr. Denmark received her first injection of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine in December 2020 and her second in January 2021. "I was ready for side effects, but I didn’t have any at all," she said.
Both Dr. Chitwood and Dr. Denmark are thankful to have received the vaccine. "I'm hopeful for the future," said Dr. Chitwood.
As a frontline worker and a parent of a daughter with asthma, Dr. Denmark said that being vaccinated has provided her family with some relief knowing she’s protected. "I was proud to get the COVID-19 vaccination."
Advocating for Vaccinations
As a member of the African-American community, Dr. Denmark hears concerns about the vaccine's safety from those who are hesitant to get vaccinated. She has been working to change community sentiment by talking to her Black patients about the virus and what they can do to protect themselves.
"I acknowledge the history of bias between the Black community and health care system," she said. "Then I talk with them about how the Black community has been severely affected by the virus and how we are more likely to become sick and hospitalized."
Dr. Denmark also talks about Dr. Kizzmekia ("Kizzy") Corbett, an African-American woman and one of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) scientists who worked directly to develop and produce the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine, which uses the same technology as the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. "I tell patients that an African-American woman developed this vaccine, and she is the NIH's lead scientist for coronavirus research."
While Dr. Denmark urges people to talk to their doctors about their concerns, she said that the best way to protect the community and reduce the virus is through vaccinations. "I tell my patients to get vaccinated like I did because the vaccine can save lives, especially in Black communities where people are dying at higher rates from the virus."
Addressing Vaccine Fears
When Dr. Chitwood answers patients' questions about the vaccine, she shares her injection experience and talks about the clinical trial results to ease fears. "Women who are pregnant, breastfeeding or thinking about becoming pregnant have questions about vaccine safety and if it will affect a fetus or newborn."
Understanding these concerns, Dr. Chitwood explains to patients that pregnancy might increase the susceptibility to certain viruses – like the coronavirus – and severe illness. "Guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the Society for Maternal Fetal Medicine recommend women who are pregnant have access to the vaccine. There have been no red flags or reported cases of serious side effects among pregnant women."
She added that the hope is that the antibodies that the mother gets through vaccination will be passed through the placenta and in breast milk to give babies some additional protection.
Dr. Chitwood talks to patients who wonder about the vaccine's effects on fertility, telling them that "there is no evidence at this time that the vaccine has any effect on fertility or that women who receive the vaccine should delay getting pregnant."
Ultimately she believes in medicine and the science behind the vaccines. "As someone who recovered from the virus, I was excited to receive the injections and encourage everyone who qualifies to get the vaccine."
Echoing Dr. Denmark's advice, Dr. Chitwood urges people to talk to their health care provider if they are nervous about the vaccine so they can do the best thing for themselves and their families.
Looking to the Future
As Dr. Denmark and Dr. Chitwood reflect on 2020, they acknowledge the challenges they've faced and are hopeful for the future as they see vaccine production ramp-up.
"Even if you've received the vaccine, it's important to keep following safety precautions like wearing a mask, handwashing and physical distancing to keep the community safe until more people are vaccinated," Dr. Denmark said.
Dr. Chitwood agreed and added, "When it's safe, I'm most looking forward to reconnecting with friends and extended family, going to a Cardinals baseball game and taking my son to the City Museum."
"I, too, look forward to celebrating after friends and family receive the vaccination." Dr. Denmark said. "My greatest hope is to return to a space of normalcy where we can care for each other."