By Mikkel Hyldebrandt

With the rollout of a COVID-19 vaccine, healthcare workers on the pandemic frontlines belong to the prioritized group to receive the vaccine. Peach spoke to ICU nurse Dorian Kerschner, who has worked directly with COVID-19 patients since the beginning of the pandemic, and who was the first to receive the vaccine, about his frontline experience and how it feels to get the vaccine. 

The pandemic has turned life upside down for just about all of us – what was life for you pre-pandemic? 

I’ve lived in Atlanta for a little over two years now after moving here from Rome, GA, where I lived for a portion of my life. Pre-pandemic, I was a club-goer, attended the local drag shows, and even volunteered at some of the local LGBTQ+ events.

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, you have worked on the frontlines as a healthcare worker – tell us about what your function has been.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, I’ve worked directly with and cared for COVID-19 patients in the ICU setting for Emory University Hospital. My unit has been the designated COVID-19 unit since the first positive patient was noted in GA.

What has your first-hand experience of the pandemic been like?

My first-hand experience has been hell, to be frank. I, like many other people, thought this was just some crazy version of the flu at first, but it became painfully clear this was way more serious than we were ever led to believe through what I witnessed over the next coming months. I’ve easily lost more patients in the last ten months than I have in the last ten years of being in the clinical setting. The virus has been non-discriminatory to age as well. I’m 30 years old, so seeing patients in their mid-20s pass away has not only reminded me of my own mortality but will haunt me for the rest of my life.

You have shared your experience working on the frontline of the pandemic online – what has been the most challenging aspect of it all?

The hardest aspect of everything through the pandemic is seeing the general public, including people I was once close to and respected, continue to carry on with their lives as if we weren’t in the middle of a pandemic. Seeing people I know continue to travel and party while disregarding mask-wearing has not only been the biggest slap in my face because of what I do but has honestly shaken my faith in humanity. I cannot simply wrap my head around how someone can put the life or another at risk for the sake of selfishness and self-satisfaction. I, myself, took some calculated risks in the beginning with a handful of friends. At the time, my closest friends were either working from home or already being laid off, so it seemed safe that we could just continue seeing each other in a private setting without risking exposure to the virus, but unfortunately, they started deviating from that plan by going back to the party scene or by seeing other people, and it was no longer safe to see them anymore.

You were also one of the first healthcare workers to receive the new vaccine. First off, what is it like getting the shot?

I was, in fact, the first to receive the first of Pfizer’s vaccinations on my unit. After discussing my experience with my co-workers, they started signing up to receive it as well, one by one. I got my first vaccination on December 17th, and the only thing I had was a little soreness at the injection site for about a day afterward.

At this point, you have gotten both doses of the vaccine. When will you have acquired the necessary antibodies from the vaccine?

I received the second and final dose of the vaccination on January 4th, and I should have the necessary antibodies for about 95% immunity in about three weeks from the last dose.

What would you like people to know about getting the vaccine – especially those who are hesitant about getting it?

Getting the vaccine has made me even more vocal about encouraging others to do the same. At the time of writing this, I still have no symptoms other than some soreness at the injection site again. My professional opinion is that vaccination is the only way we will get ahold of the pandemic and get back to any semblance of a normal life. If this past year has shown me anything, it’s that science has been greatly ignored, and the virus was somehow made political. I’m telling you now that if you are not willing to take getting the vaccine under serious consideration, you need to be ready to face the fact that the pandemic will just continue on as it has, claiming even more lives along the way, closing down even more businesses, destroying mental health, and devastating the lives of us all. There are enough people in the public, both the straight and gay communities, that are directly working against the end of the pandemic with their actions that are ensuring it will simply not go away on its own.

What are some of the most important things you have learned this past year? And how are you utilizing them going forward?

Some things I’ve learned along the way is that quality over quantity will always have more merit when it comes to the people in your life. There are about six people in my life currently, my partner especially, that have helped me navigate this last year. My best friend is someone that I met in the club scene originally but only became as close as we are now during this mess. Even when I wanted to give up, they helped me stay strong and carry on. I’ve learned that I cannot lose sight of myself because of the things I see in the world. My passion is caring for others, and I never want to lose sight of the warmth and love I’ve always held for people. Professionally, my experiences over this last year have inspired me to pursue another field in my nursing career, and I am now going to be a Senior Infection Control Coordinator for Emory University Hospital. It will be my responsibility to learn even more about infectious diseases, how they originate and transmit, and how to prevent their spreading in the clinical setting.

With the vaccine underway, what is the best advice you can give to people about fighting and living with the threat of COVID-19?

I know it’s been difficult, and I know that you’re tired, but we’re almost through this. Stay vigilant. Stay strong. Don’t allow the choices of others to change who you are. Hold your friends and family accountable. The necessary behavior is obvious to us all. Anything else is unacceptable. It will take time to heal once this is all over, and you’re entitled for that to take as long as it needs.

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