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Voices of Population Science and Policy

A Letter to Other Moms About the COVID-19 Vaccine

by Meredith Volle, MD, Population Science and Policy Education Director

The other day when I was going through a box of clothes, I held up a tiny infant dress.  It was a beautiful mint green with a Peter Pan collar and bunny print, clearly intended for my newborn daughter to wear this Easter, but purchased almost a year before she was even born.  I racked my brain to try and remember what would have possessed me to buy such an item; surely my older daughter had multiple dresses to hand down that would have worked for this future occasion.  I knew I was making some impulse purchases at the beginning of the pandemic, but this seemed excessive.  Then a distant, albeit distinct, memory peeked around the corner of my mind: At the time, I thought I might not live to see her first Easter.

I found out I was pregnant late in 2019.  When I was about 20 weeks along, the world stopped.  Suddenly everyone was using the word “pandemic,” something I spoke about to medical students during Population Science and Policy lectures, not something I was used to hearing about on every news channel, on every website, and in every conversation.  My husband and I discussed how to protect our family, including two of our parents who lived alone, and took our oldest daughter out of preschool the day before it closed.  It was never a discussion if I would continue to work or not. We both knew this was part of the oath I took as a physician, so I put on a mask, walked up three flights of stairs to avoid the elevator, and went to work each day. 

As clinic appointments were reduced to try and avoid unnecessary spread, I began providing increased coverage in the newborn nursery.  I can remember going on rounds and seeing the relief on parents’ faces when I came in to examine their babies.  It seemed like we were thinking the same thing: At a time when you didn’t know who was following guidelines to stay home, wear masks, and social distance, one of the only “younger” populations who reliably did so were expectant parents.  They knew I was protecting them, and I knew they were more likely to be taking steps to protect me and my unborn daughter.  We were in it together, figuring out how to safely bring babies into a changed world where siblings and grandparents couldn’t visit and instead welcomed these new arrivals over Facetime.

Each day we would hear the same frightening stories in the news: A pregnant woman with COVID who goes on a ventilator and wakes up to find she gave birth prematurely months ago; A new mom with COVID who finally gets to hold her baby in the NICU; A pregnant mother with COVID dies and leaves behind her loving family.  My way of coping was to push through during the day and quiz my husband at night: Do you know who to call if I get sick?  Do you know what specialists to ask for in case our daughter was born prematurely?  If I die, do you know how to dress them, pick out gifts on special occasions, and tell them how much I loved them?  That little dress with the dainty collar I bought was a symbol of my darkest fear as a mother: I could get sick at any time and would not be around to raise my daughters. 

It is now six months since my beautiful daughter Mae was born and much of the advice for pregnant and breastfeeding women has not changed in the past year.  We are still a high-risk group, there are still few research studies about COVID-19 in our population, and we continue to live with uncertainty for our families every day.  One thing, however, is remarkably different.  There is now a vaccine to protect against COVID-19. 

In my field of Pediatrics, we talk to parents about vaccines every single day.  It is not a new topic or an easy one, but I enjoy helping parents who are experiencing vaccine hesitancy and discussing how they can feel confident in vaccinating themselves and their children.  I hear from countless women my age who are worried about getting vaccinated because of pregnancy, breastfeeding, or future plans to have children.  Moms worry about many of the same things, but in my experience, what we choose to do with those fears is what will determine the outcomes for our families. 

I was so proud when I received my first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine last month.  After waiting for the required observation period, I went straight home to change clothes, scrub up to my elbows, and breastfeed, knowing that while there is likely almost no chance the mRNA vaccine components can pass to my daughter, in some ways I wish it could because children will not be eligible for the vaccine for several months at least.  My older daughter recently asked when she will receive the vaccine herself, and I heard my husband explain that healthcare workers like her mommy get it first so we can keep helping others, and then it will be her turn.  Like most children, she isn’t excited about shots, but she understands that it will allow her to go back to school more safely and play with her friends again.  Her only request was to specify which one of our amazing SIU Pediatrics clinic nurses gives it to her.

When other mothers in healthcare and the community ask, I am proud to be able to share that I was vaccinated, protecting both myself and my family, and that my infant daughter is still breastfeeding and couldn’t be doing better.  For me, my COVID-19 vaccine is a tangible symbol that illustrates how far we have come as a family—that I made it to the next mile marker in a race to protect my daughters and balance my roles as both a mother and practicing healthcare worker in a pandemic. 

To the other moms out there who are unsure about the vaccine: I see you and I am happy to go first and share my story if it helps even one fellow mother feel better about getting her own vaccine.  Too often we only hear about the bad outcomes, so for once, let us revel in the good!  This year I will be celebrating Easter with both my daughters, knowing that I have done everything within my power to protect them.  And as for that little dress purchased in a moment of fear?  My baby outgrew it months ago. 

(photo credit: Jill Gum Photography)