A pinprick of hope

It was bright when we drew up outside the Eastway Clinic at Sunday lunchtime. Since I don’t drive and the buses are infrequent, I’d allowed us the privilege of getting a taxi. And, on balance, taking a taxi involving greater proximity to one masked driver probably involves no greater risk than sitting on a bus with several masked strangers, albeit at a greater distance. Amazing how much time I spend weighing up things like this now. What a difference a year makes.

My mum is 81 and she had received ‘the call’ just the day before. We had been waiting and hoping for it, but when it finally came, there was a tiny bit of anguish in Mum’s eyes. “I’ve got to go tomorrow”, she said. “Hooray!” I replied. “Don’t worry, Mum, I’ll come with you. It’ll be fine.”

So there we were. We were met with quite a queue outside the clinic, socially distanced of course. A man greeted us with a smile, asking for Mum’s name and inviting us to join the line. “It won’t be long”, he said, “They’re just getting set up”. Just then another lady and her elderly mum walked up. “Is there nowhere for my mother to sit down, please?” she asked. “I’m afraid not. But I’ll see if I can get you a chair”, which he duly did.

Mum looked around at the others waiting and in characteristic fashion whispered to me: “Well, I don’t think I’m as decrepit as other people here.” She was right actually. Mum is doing fantastically well for her 81 years. She takes pills for high blood pressure, and osteo-arthritis has meant replacements in both knees, but apart from that she is very healthy, and fiercely self-sufficient and independent. Most of the time she won’t even let me put the bins out.

That hasn’t taken the worry away for me, though, during this pandemic. I’ll never forget having to tell her about the imminent lockdown and the fact that, due to her age, she would be advised to isolate. It was the Saturday night before Johnson’s first lockdown announcement when I caught wind of it. Most of Europe had locked down already and I was expecting it. But I wasn’t expecting that the over-70s would be advised to stay at home for so long, and my mum certainly wasn’t. “How on earth am I going to tell her … ?” I fretted.

“Mum, you know the government is thinking of locking us down … “, I started tentatively as she made herself a cup of tea. “Well, the thing is … they are also going to recommend that certain people, because of health conditions or their age, don’t go out for a while.” “How long for?” she asked quizzically, feathers truly ruffled. “Er, three months”’, I said hesitantly, waiting for the explosion, which duly came: “Well, how absolutely ridiculous! I don’t believe it! You must have got it wrong!” was her immediate reaction.

Of course it wasn’t ridiculous or wrong. On the evening Johnson announced the very same, she told me she had better get down to the shops the next day before the lockdown came into force on the Thursday. I had been expecting this and had already decided that, for us, or rather, for Mum, the lockdown may as well start immediately. I could take over all the shopping. There was no reason for her to delay it and take a risk by continuing to go out until it ‘officially’ started. That went down like a lead balloon as well. But I stood my ground and she eventually just looked at me with a rather defeated look of sulky disdain. My insistence had won her over, which was a (somewhat unexpected) relief.

As the months passed and infection rates fell, Mum began to venture out again, first of all with me, and occasionally on the odd shopping trip alone. But as soon as winter hit and Covid-19 cases began to rise, even in the Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole area, my anxiety for her returned. And then the news of the highly transmissible variant strain hit me like a bombshell. This is serious. We’ve been so careful, but we can’t let our guard down now; in fact, we need to put it back up, and higher. Sadly, I lost one friend in a care home to Covid-19 and another lies in hospital with it as I write this. I’d been feeling anxious before, but now I’m actually frightened. I understand how unbearable it is not to be able to visit poorly loved ones, how alone it makes them feel and the helplessness it reduces you to. Mum doesn’t even own a mobile phone, so how would I even speak to her … ? It doesn’t bear thinking about. And I’ve got no close family nearby. How would I cope?

This is the background to my mum’s first Pfizer-Biontech vaccination against Covid-19. In a terrible year, it has truly been one of the few positive highlights, offering a small glimmer of hope for us, as it does for so many millions of others.

Suddenly nurses started buzzing in and out and the first in the queue were called to enter in a group of four. The man greeting us had explained that the whole process was to take about 20 minutes: five for the screening questions and to administer the vaccination and 15 minutes for observation in the event of unusual side effects. As we edged forward a few more paces, I said to Mum that I’d have to leave her and step out of the line. ‘I’ll be fine’, she asserted, brushing off my ‘Are you all rights?’ with a look that indicated I should stop acting like a mother hen.

Mum wasn’t particularly worried about the vaccine, except for the idea that it had been developed so quickly. And I had done my best to explain the reason was that the pharmaceutical companies had been given all the funding they’d ever dreamed of, hence avoiding the delays in research and development that ordinarily accompanied new medicines. She accepted that. But despite what she said, I still suspected that she was likely feeling a bit of anxiety.

To my shame, I’d already been bombarding her for most of the previous day with a terrible rendition of ‘Get me to the church on time’, the words of which I had changed to:

Mum’s getting Pfizered in the morning,

Ding Dong the bells are gonna chime,

Pull up your sleeve,

And don’t forget to breathe,

Let’s get you to the clinic on time!’ 

By this point, she was no doubt sick of my reassurances, not to mention my awful singing, but rather that than have her overly anxious.

She waved at me as she entered the clinic in her group of four, just as it started to spit with rain. It felt like a role reversal, with me as the apprehensive mother waving off my child on their first day at school. It was surreal. I took a look around and it hit me just how special this experience really was. More and more elderly men and women joined the line, some very frail, all looking somewhat unsure of themselves. One couple got out of a car and walked along at a painfully slow pace, stopping for a minute to put on their face masks. The gentleman helped his wife loop hers over her ear, so caringly, and they too joined the queue.

I thought how wonderful it was that these very vulnerable human beings were finally being given a lifeline against this horrendous disease. We all have a lifeline now, thank God, should we choose to take it.

It started to rain harder and I did my jacket up. The first in line had already come out, some greeted by beaming loved ones. I checked the time and spotted a lady I recognised who had been in the group just before Mum’s. Not long now.

At last I saw her blue coat, as she made her way down the sloping path, and I felt my face light up, a little like when you first catch sight of someone at airport arrivals. “How was it?” I asked, eagerly grabbing her arm. “Oh fine, fine”, she said. “I never even felt it!” I grinned with an air of reassurance at the others waiting in line as we passed by and made our way up the slight hill. Mum walked at a faster pace than usual and proceeded to tell me of the list of questions she’d had to answer and the very nice observation room. “Was one of them “Are you pregnant or breastfeeding?”’, I asked cheekily.

And that was that. No side effects, except a sore arm for a couple of days, like you get after the flu jab. Of course Mum is not fully protected yet and we are still being extra cautious, particularly due to the new variant strain gaining ground. But at least round one is done. Her next dose is due in 21 days’ time and was booked at the same time as the initial phone call.

I feel unbelievably grateful to those scientists who have developed this vaccine, and the others to come, and to the NHS workers who are rolling it out, even on a Sunday. During this pandemic, our quest to get back to our normal lives has become dependent upon scientists, the NHS and the government. At least the scientists and the NHS haven’t let us down.