Navajo-Hopi Nations,Flagstaff & Winslow News
Wed, Jan. 27

An injection of hope: Nurse, Navy veteran and volunteer help deliver first COVID-19 vaccines

RN Nurse and Team Rubicon volunteer Terri Whitson vaccinates a fellow nurse at Gallup Indian Medical Center Dec. 15. (Photo/Team Rubicon)

RN Nurse and Team Rubicon volunteer Terri Whitson vaccinates a fellow nurse at Gallup Indian Medical Center Dec. 15. (Photo/Team Rubicon)

GALLUP, Ariz. — One month ago, RN Terri Whitson was mucking out hurricane-damaged houses in Lake Charles, LA. On Dec. 15, she was at the Navajo Nation vaccinating frontline workers against COVID-19.

Making that vaccine delivery was very emotional for Whitson, who retired from the Navy in 2016 and has spent much of the past year volunteering on feeding operations and assisting with hurricane relief with Team Rubicon.

“What I heard more times than not, is ‘it’s the beginning of the end.’ We’re just hopeful that things are going to get back to normal and people are not going to be sick anymore. People are not going to be dying,” said Whitson of her first day providing vaccines. “And, to think that I had a small, itty bitty part in that is pretty amazing.”

Whitson, who served in the Navy Nurse Corps, deployed as a volunteer nurse with Team Rubicon at the Gallup Indian Medical Center Dec. 6 having no idea she’d be there when the vaccine arrived.

Team Rubicon is a national organization serving communities by mobilizing veterans and first responders to continue their service, leveraging their skills and experience to help people prepare, respond and recover from disasters and humanitarian crises.

When Whitson heard the vaccines were coming she asked to extend her deployment by another week so that she could help get it into the arms of people who need it most.

“I feel pretty fortunate to have been involved in this, and to be involved in something that I think is so huge—so huge that it could possibly bring everybody’s lives back to normal again and provide protection for these frontline workers in the hospitals who are just so overwhelmed,” Whitson said before stopping to dry some tears.

Before the vaccine arrived at the Navajo Nation, Whitson had spent weekdays at the Medical Center working with employee health services, where she would talk with people about their test results—hard, emotional work in itself given the number of positives and knowing how short-staffed the system already was.

On the weekends, when health services was closed, she swabbed noses at the drive-through coronavirus testing site, which is open to the public.

When the vaccine arrived at the Navajo Nation at 10 a.m. Dec. 14, Whitson was on the team that began setting up a vaccination space. It’s a place, that she said people might receive a bit of hope. On Dec. 15, she delivered her first COVID-19 vaccination there.

For now, Indian Health Services and the team are focusing on vaccinating frontline workers who have the most exposure to COVID-19 patients, such as people working in the emergency department, anesthesiologists, and hospitalists. The hospital, which has more than 1,300 employees, received 740 doses of the vaccine.

By the end of the first day, the team had vaccinated 80 of their fellow doctors and nurses; on Dec. 16, they vaccinated another 95 more.

“You can feel an excitement, and people were joking and laughing,” Whitson said. “It was joyous. It was such a good feeling.”

That joy was a lift for Whitson, too. She’d spent the prior week hearing codes called in the hospital and hearing ambulances come and go, and knowing for herself just how devastating the pandemic has been in this community.

“It was a good day. It was a really good day, and it felt really good to give people … to hear them say, ‘you know, this is the beginning of the end,’” she said. “You know, we were giving them an injection of hope.”

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