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Gwen Lea, RN, COVID-19 vaccine

Why I’m encouraging my community to get the COVID-19 vaccine

As far back as I can remember, I wanted to be a pediatric nurse. My mom died when I was 10 years old, and I distinctly remember that was when I had the first thought that I wanted to be a nurse. After that, there was no other choice. I have now been a pediatric nurse for more than 35 years.

When I got my start at Children’s Wisconsin, some of my first patients were children with sickle cell disease. Caring for kids with this disease quickly became a passion. So, when a position opened up in the Sickle Cell Clinic, I was eager to apply. That was more than 20 years ago. 

I love this group of patients in particular for a few reasons. This is a group of children you get the opportunity to follow closely until they become adults. But it’s not just the kids. Sickle cell can also be a very stressful disease for parents and caregivers. I have always felt if I don’t help take care of the needs of the parent, then the needs of the child will not be met. And education is a key part of that. I love to educate and I know it makes a difference. 

As you likely know, sickle cell disease predominantly affects African Americans. As a nurse who is also African American, I felt I had a unique opportunity to help this population get better health care through education and advocacy. I believe the African American community is underserved when it comes to health care. I felt this even as a young nurse. I know many African Americans have a long history of mistrust when it comes to the medical community. So I take my role as a nurse who is also African American very seriously. Through direct patient care, advocacy, education and setting an example, I know I have a special role to play in helping heal those historical wounds and making sure our community gets the care it needs. 

Much like sickle cell disease, COVID-19 has affected African Americans in disproportionate numbers. There are many reasons for this, but I think mistrust plays a big role. I know there is lot of hesitancy in African American communities to get the COVID-19 vaccine and that played a big role in my decision to get vaccinated. In fact, I was the first person at Children’s Wisconsin to receive the COVID-19 vaccine and I did not hesitate to do so. I feel great — a sense of relief — and I didn’t experience any significant side-effects. After the second dose, my arm was pretty uncomfortable for a couple of days, but nothing that kept me from carrying on my daily activities.

I truly believe COVID-19 will only go away if the majority of our community gets vaccinated. For that to happen, there needs to be more education in the African American community. Because this population is more hesitant and less trusting, I felt I could do my small part by getting the vaccine and showing that it’s safe. It was and continues to be my hope that if more African Americans are seen getting the vaccine, it will encourage others to do the same. 

Being a nurse, I trust the science and I know these companies have been making vaccines for years. Those who know me well — my family, friends and the families I care for — know that I would not have gotten the vaccine if I didn’t think it was safe. And I know sharing my experience has made a difference — the families I care for every day have told me so. Many of the parents of the patients I see have said they will likely get the vaccine when it becomes available because of the example I set. They are able to see in person that I got vaccinated and that I am doing well. It is my hope my single decision will have an impact on many. 

This article originally appeared in the Black History Month special edition of the Milwaukee Courier