Elderly couple get back to sense of normalcy after COVID vaccine

By Caroline Kloster

When John opened the double doors to Mizner Court Room 453, peonies in hand, Patricia panicked. The pair had known each other since they were 14 years old and had been married almost 60 years, so the courtship days of spontaneous gifts and sweet nothings were long over. Had a forgotten anniversary or birthday tiptoed up behind her, ready to shower her in guilt?

Nothing had. According to John, though, flowers were necessary to commemorate the next best thing: a jab in the arm under the fluorescent lights of a stale-smelling hospital room.

“I mean, second to the birth of a child or grandchild, there’s no better feeling,” John said.

Scoring two doses of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine was a full-time job, a scavenger hunt, a race to salvation. It took two weeks for the Imperials to secure appointments after a full year of curtailing every activity that made them feel sane. The couple had barely left their apartment building in a year. At 77 and 79 years old, Patricia and John fall into the elderly population with a greater chance of suffering severe illness as a result of COVID-19.

Revisiting the past

The times of real hardship were supposed to be over, and for many years, they had been. Married at 18 years old and a mother of two by 20, Patricia never enrolled in college. She spent her days working as a teacher to support her son and daughter while their father spent a year in Thailand serving in the Vietnam War. Days were difficult without her partner, and she worried her children might forget who Daddy was.

John made up for lost time when he returned from a tumultuous trip to Thailand. As an electrical engineer, he helped to invent the first digital switch for telecommunications and took his company public. His children barely saw their father, who spent his days and nights working, but he retired at 43, sent his children to college and moved to Boca Raton, Florida with Patricia.

Patricia’s perseverance and John’s determination allowed them to dedicate the rest of their lives to watching their children and grandchildren grow up. They lived the simple lives they worked hard for, but their quiet lives became even quieter when the pandemic hit in March.

Buying Christmas gifts for their four grandchildren turned into searching for a turkey for two during the early senior shopping hour at Publix. A pair of jeans Patricia bought from Nordstrom in March still hang in a gray shopping bag in the couple’s shared closet. It had been a year of missed birthdays, missed visits with family and missed memories.

“There’s so many things you can’t control, and you start to wonder if this will ever end—if you’ll die first or die from it,” John said.

The problem with finding an appointment

Patricia and John are now part of the 4.2 million people that have been vaccinated in Florida so far, but it was an uphill battle to get there. While Gov. Ron DeSantis announced that vaccines would be available to Floridians 65 years old and up in January, it took Patricia and John two weeks to find an appointment. At the time, vaccines were only available in particular hospitals, and Boca Raton Regional Hospital not included.

Searching for vaccine appointments ate up the couple’s free time, which they had more than enough to spare. Chatter in their building and threads on online forums helped Patricia to collect the links to five websites that allowed seniors to schedule appointments at various hospitals. Then, she woke at 6 a.m., closed the door on John’s hearty snoring and padded her slipper-clad feet down the hall to the couple’s Dell desktop.

She returned to that desktop every hour for two weeks, refreshing five webpages for an “Appointment Available!” notification. Her only breaks were while she slept.

“It was like trying to find tickets for The Beatles, or Justin Bieber, or whoever people fawn over nowadays. There was a competitive edge to it,” Patricia said.

Patricia’s first glimmer of hope came on day four when a single appointment opened up. After a few passing seconds, and a handful of rapid clicks, she was scheduled to receive the first dose of the Pfizer vaccine at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami.

Shortly after, she cancelled it.

“I couldn’t get an appointment for John to go at the same time as me,” Patricia said. “We’ve done everything together since I was 14. We’ve supported each other through the last year of loneliness and fear, so we deserve to feel the relief together, right at the same time.”

The celebratory click came on day 14, exactly two weeks since Patricia began her routine of researching, refreshing and repeating.

The couple embraced, standing by the computer for a brief moment to make sure the confirmation was real. Jackson Memorial Hospital, Pfizer vaccine, Dose 1.

A breath of relief

The wait was over. It had been more than two weeks.

The couple’s last pre-COVID outing took place on March 11, 2020. Patricia, John and two other couples met for dinner in Mizner Park, where they discussed new restaurants they’d like to try, plans to visit their children and grandchildren for Thanksgiving and Christmas, and the cruise vacation Patricia and John booked for the summer.

On the exact day a year later, the Imperials met the same two couples for dinner. All six of them—who were each considered high risk per CDC guidelines—had been fully vaccinated.

“When I look back on this year, I remember it as feeling like I had been asleep for a year. Now I’m waking up,” Patricia said.

They celebrated the birthdays they had missed and toasted to the joy of hope. It felt good to celebrate the freedom to celebrate again.

Edited by: Makayla Williams