It was a quiet Sunday morning and Dr. Arturo Suplee, a Rio Grande Valley resident doctor, was in his kitchen, flipping eggs and wondering when the call would come.
His girlfriend, Dr. Denisse Ramirez, had gotten her appointment the day before. Now Suplee was nervously watching his phone. Why hadn’t it rung?
Then, as the young doctor sat down to eat his egg sandwich, the phone rang.
After months of seeing the ravages of the virus in the hard-hit Rio Grande Valley and losing hope, time and again, that the end could ever be in sight, Suplee made his long-awaited appointment to get vaccinated against COVID-19.
Could he be available Wednesday? Without hesitation, Suplee, 29, said yes.
“I immediately called my dad,” said Suplee, chief internal medicine resident at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley School of Medicine. “Finally, we are fighting back.”
Later that afternoon on Dec. 13, some 1,500 miles away, the first doses of the Pfizer vaccine were greeted by cheering crowds as delivery trucks rolled out of the manufacturing plant in Kalamazoo, Michigan, headed for health care workers in Texas who have been on the front lines of a yearlong pandemic that taken the lives of their families, their friends, their coworkers and their patients.
Injections started in Texas 24 hours later.
By the end of the week, tens of thousands of Texas front-line workers had received their first round of the two-dose vaccine, and nearly a million more doses were on the way to inoculate more Texans before the new year.
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The arrival of the vaccine signaled an emergence from what countless health care workers called the darkest time in their careers.
But the compact white boxes holding the vials of vaccine marked the first time in the wreckage of 2020 that good tidings were coming.
“It was pretty much receiving a dose of hope,” said Annette Ozuna, a clinical pharmacist at Doctors Hospital at Renaissance in Edinburg, moments after getting the injection there last Saturday.
“Brighter and brighter”
The shots arrived at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston on Tuesday, some 3,900 doses — and one of them was for Dr. Julie Boom.
All that day, Boom, a pediatrician and co-chair of Texas Children’s COVID-19 vaccine task force, felt “an almost giddy sense of joy.”
She rode the escalator to an area of the hospital filled with silver and red balloons while celebratory music played. It felt like a kid’s birthday party.
Wearing her blue surgical mask, Boom sat down and let her eyes rest on the dose she was about to receive. A tiny vial, a needle she’s seen thousands of times before.
She smiled widely behind her mask. It felt foreign. Needles and masks: familiar. Smiles? Not so much this year.
After her vaccination, Boom passed the “wall of hope” nearby, with its yellow, purple, pink and blue stars. The wall was filled with what hospital staff wrote down as their wishes for a COVID-19 free world.
“More hugs & more kisses,” one staffer wrote.
“Reschedule our canceled wedding,” said another.
“Seeing more therapy patients in person!”
“I want to hug my family.”
Boom knew that she and her colleagues — whom she saw taking selfies with their vaccine Band-Aids all week — were on the edge of a new era.
“The more and more people get vaccinated,” Boom said, “the light at the end of the pandemic gets brighter and brighter.”
“One step at a time”
Two days before El Paso nurse Raul Garcia got his vaccine, his community reached 1,200 total deaths from COVID-19.
It had been a devastating year for the Texas border, which has some of the nation’s hardest-hit areas. In Garcia’s town, the morgue was so overwhelmed by death last month that inmates from the county’s detention facility were brought in to assist with the overflow of bodies awaiting autopsy.
For Garcia, getting the shot meant quieting his mind.
After months of worry that he might come down with the virus, he was “happy to finally put some of those thoughts to rest.”
Garcia, 44, who lives alone, kept his distance from his parents in El Paso throughout the pandemic.
When his mother got the virus, Garcia got scared because her underlying conditions put her at a higher risk of dying from it. She recovered, but now Garcia has another challenge: convincing her to get the vaccine.
After her recovery, she is “inching toward” taking it, but she, like Garcia’s younger sister, wants to see others take the vaccine first.
Garcia’s coworker Sarah Ellis, a registered nurse, had mixed feelings when she got her shot. On one hand, relief. On the other, guilt.
“We feel lucky to be able to have gotten the vaccine,” she said. “We felt bad that they [the patients] weren’t able to get it before catching the virus.”
Her mom and two sisters, who all work at University Medical Center of El Paso with her, were also in the first round. Ellis lost her father-in-law to COVID-19 last month. She was the nurse at the hospital who cared for him.