Back in December last year, Christmas had just been cancelled and I was sitting at home contemplating the prospect of another lockdown. I couldn't face spending the next few months stuck in the house, taking one Zoom call after another. I decided I needed to do something. An all-staff email arrived saying the Crick was setting up a vaccination centre and asking staff to volunteer to work in it. I signed up.
A couple of weeks later, on a snowy Saturday morning, I found myself at Middlesex University, along with a disparate group of people that included several other Crick colleagues, receiving a course in vaccination. We spent time learning about infection control - how to wash our hands and put on (and equally importantly, take off) PPE - and what to do if someone has anaphylaxis or a heart attack. Of course, we were also taught how to inject someone's arm. But having previously been taught how to inject laboratory animals, as well as a now sadly deceased diabetic cat, I realised that injecting humans is way easier. Unlike animals, even if some people flinch a little, they tend not to bite you while you're injecting them.
Over the last few months, I've worked one or two 5 hour shifts per week in the Vaccination Centre, usually one during the week and one at the weekend. It's been a rewarding and enriching experience. The centre was set up in collaboration with UCLH and I've been impressed with the professionalism and dedication of the clinical staff managing the centre and looking after us volunteers. At each shift there was a different team of volunteers to get to know, different patients with different problems and anxieties, and different details to communicate about the rapidly expanding national vaccination programme. But the clinical staff ensured each shift came together and we worked as a team as several hundred people got vaccinated. I've enjoyed getting to know some of the clinicians as well as other volunteers from the Crick, Wellcome, British Library, and further afield. The shared purpose and the sense of being part of a national effort made for a great atmosphere.
Working through the government's priority list for vaccination meant we started with older people and progressed to younger patients as the months ticked by. One of my enduring memories will be how happy and excited everyone has been to get their jabs, particularly the older patients. Many had experienced very little social contact for months and were desperate to get vaccinated so they could see children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren again. As the months went on and the patients got younger, I noticed more tattoos on people’s arms, and more people excited to see friends instead of grandchildren. And I gained experience dealing with bleeders, fainters, and the occasional needle phobic.
The vaccination programme has been a great social leveller. Volunteers ranged from Nobel prize winning knights of the realm (Peter Ratcliffe) to UCL medical students getting their first exposure to frontline practice. The patients were equally diverse. As a vaccinator, I never knew who the next person to step into my cubical would be. We've had everyone and anyone from rough sleepers, brought in by Gary from the local homeless shelter, to the rich and famous and even Kier Starmer and Boris Johnson. It was always interesting having a little chat with patients as I went through the admin and prepared the jab. I've heard a lot of stories about how people have coped through the pandemic and what has changed in their lives.
I will miss working in the centre. I would say I'm disappointed it's closing, but on the other hand, I also hope we never have to do it again. Although I don't know how any of my patients have fared after they left the centre, I do know that they left happier and better protected. And I also know I'll remember many of their faces and stories, and arms, from the 7 months I spent as a vaccinator.