Desperate for a Dose: Part 1

Sunday morning, in my continued my efforts to learn as much as possible about the state of the vaccination campaign in France, I decided to Google the phrase, “aucune dose perdue.” This phrase translates into English as, no dose lost and is one that has become synonymous in France with the idea of using every possible dose from each bottle of vaccine that is opened.

I was curious to see what, if anything came up, beyond the information I had already learned about the multiple websites individuals have developed to help people find out about how and where to make an appointment to get a vaccine. There was even a site called Covidliste.com, on which vaccination sites and individuals could register to find out where there were doses in their area that needed to be used or tossed each day.

This website noted that there were currently fewer than 200 vaccination centers registered on this new site, and I wondered if that meant there were many more doses that were being thrown away as a result of not getting the word out to people who could come last minute to get a jab.

I found two very promising articles in my search, one from a Paris based online magazine called “Sortira/Solidaire Paris” and another called “La Voix Du Nord” for the region where we live.

“La Voix du Nord” translates as “The Voice of the North.” In this article, the author had explained that those in the upper echelons of health in France were encouraging citizens to go to vaccination centers and see if they are worth extra doses in order to avoid waste of any kind. According to these officials, these doses would be made available to all people, regardless of age or health condition.

As we are well into our third lock down in Europe, our second in under a year of living in France, my schedule has not been particularly busy. Why not spend a day waiting around in the hope of getting a first dose of a vaccine?

I have taken to referring to my current state as having “pandemic brain,” which means that I have a lot of trouble concentrating on any task that is not related worrying about how to organize an international move from France to the United States, getting the virus, and trying to get a vaccine before I have to get on an airplane in less than two months. Given this reality, I figured that I would most spend the rest of the day googling vaccination centers anyway and worrying about flying back to the United States without a vaccine. Why not try to take action with the possibility of success at the same time?

On the website vitemadose.fr (quick my dose), you can look up places that give vaccines in your area to see who have doses available. Many of them also specify which vaccine they offer. I started my search by looking for those offerings Pfizer and found one vaccination center open on Sunday. I looked up directions on Google maps, and texted the link to my cell phone.

My husband and I took the dog for a walk, and then I took a shower and ate lunch so that I would be fully fortified for my adventure, however epic it might become. Then I headed south to meet my destiny.

On the drive, I repeated the possible things I might say to staff at the center. Here is the English translation of one variation:

I would like to ask you a question about the vaccine. I read an article in La Voix Du Nord about something called “no dose lost,” and they said sometimes there are doses that need to be used or they will have to be thrown away.

While walking with my husband I had come up with different possible scenarios that I might run into. The first would be that they would be mean and turn me away. The second was that they would be nice but still turn me away. Other scenarios were more creative. Someone would say, “Well, we have one dose that needs to be used up in the next half hour but if no one comes in to claim it, it’s yours.” I would then literally sat on the edge of my seat in anticipation of this highly sought after dose becoming mine.

Even if they had a half a dose, maybe they would give that to me and then I could come back for another half dose another day. Maybe a half dose is enough. I mean, I’m pretty small.

The last scenario was probably the more Hollywood version for trying to get a vaccine. At any rate, I likened the experience to the 1980s, when people would bring sleeping bags and set up camp, sometimes overnight, to be first in line to buy concert tickets in the 80s. I, for one, would definitely sleep on the sidewalk to be first in line at opening to get a vaccine.

As it turned out, none of the scenarios my active imagination came up with were anywhere near what happened.

It’s not just the waiting that makes me nervous about my mission “hopefully not impossible” to get a vaccine. I am a highly sensitive person, so fear of rejection and/or unkindness ranks high on the list of reasons that inhibit me from pushing the limits of my comfort zone. My comfort zone has gotten smaller and smaller over the course of more than a year of pandemic tumult, but I still try to advocate for myself, especially for things that are important to me.

For example, it is important to me to be able to bring all of my animals back with me to the United States. I don’t have human children, so my three cats and one dog are my babies. Since the start of the pandemic, there have been many limitations for animals traveling with animals by air. In beginning to organize my husband and my move from France to the United States, I started by trying to find out if there were any airlines allowing animals to be added to a ticket as excess baggage. The only other option was to ship via an animal relocation company, which would cost several thousand dollars. I found a direct flight within the time frame allowed for animals on Air France, the only current airline allowing for this possibility. The only problem was that Air France only allowed three animals in the hold per passenger. This meant I would have to bring the fourth into the cabin with me as a carry-on and thus one less carry-on suitcase or bag, which I had been counting on for transporting the more valuable and breakable of the different material possessions I had accumulated over the past five years.

I usually carry one of my instruments as a carry-on, but this would mean having to check valuable and breakable items, which is generally not advisable because they can break and/or get stolen. Plus, I have course have two instruments so that would be my husband would also have to carry one, thereby limiting his carry-on options.

I decided to see if I could find a box large enough to pack my ukulele and mandolin in their hard cases wrapped with a large blanket around them for added protection and check the box in order to be able to bring one animal in the cabin with me and check the other three in the hold.

I spent several weeks going to local businesses to see if they have any large boxes to recycle that I could use to pack my instruments. I went to a music store, multiple large box stores, and finally a bicycle store. Everyone but the staff at the bicycle store were very nice, but of course it was the intensely unfriendly person at the bicycle store that left the greatest impression and instilled the most reticence in my sensitive self for moving once more out of my comfort zone in an effort to get a vaccine.

On the walk this morning with my husband, I had said that it had taken me nine different tries to find a large box, and that was not nearly as important as a vaccine dose, so I would have to just persevere regardless of the reception in order to try to track down a first dose of any possible vaccine.

In other words, sometimes I just had to suck it up and pretend I had more body armor to protect against my sensibilities. The worth case scenario was that I would return home, undosed and disappointed.

There is a saying in French, ça vaut la peine. This translates as, it’s worth the pain. I have a very strong feeling that my quality of life will improve greatly with the decrease in cortisol coursing through my system that they first disinfect seen well afford. Therefore, despite the rising anxiety as I drove ever closer to the vaccine center, along with the fact that I kept taking the wrong turns well following the GPS, I did my best to maintain a level of calm. I told myself on repeat that I needed to have low expectations, to anticipate disappointment, and to remember that this was just my first attempt and it could take many more before success would be achieved.

Arriving at the vaccination center, I saw with relief that there was a parking lot. This is always helpful in a city where parking can be a premium. My relief was only short-lived when I saw how many cars were pulling into and out of the parking lot.

Shit, I thought. There’s no way they’re going to have extra doses. This is an enormous center, and there are clearly lots of people walking in with appointments.

I drove in anyway, parked, and walked up toward the entrance. Even though I could see a very professional looking set up inside with people checking in people with appointments and a series of security people on the outside making sure the people going in did indeed have appointments, I put on a good face and tried my best to pretend I felt more courageous than I did.

There was an older woman with a vest on at the start of an outdoor line for people with appointments, and I decided I would simply go up to her, tell my story, and hope for the best.

This effort turned out far better than expected. She knew exactly what I was talking about when I mentioned no dose being lost and directed me to a piece of paper where there was a list for people hoping for a dose at the end of the day where I could write my name, telephone number, and age.

I wrote my name down and then said the only problem was that I had a United States cell phone number and was afraid they wouldn’t be able to reach me if they tried to call. She said not to worry and to just write down under my name my nationality. For good measure I added a friend’s cell phone number as well and wrote next to it, “mon amie” (my friend).

They will call you at the end of the day if there are doses, she told me.

I was still nervous since most places are not able to call a number outside of France, so I added a French’s cell number for good measure.

I then explained that I lived a half an hour drive from the center and asked if I would still make it in time if there were extra doses? She assured me it would be fine, but in the end I decided to just stick around and wait anyway. That way I could periodically check in just in case they weren’t able to reach me on my phone or they wound up giving doses to whoever was there in person and then ran out by the time I might drive back. If I was going to be nervous waiting all day, hoping to get a vaccine, I could be anxious anywhere. I might as well stay in close proximity for my best chance at a jab.

With my name number 11 on the list, I felt my spirits rise. A vaccination might just be within my reach in a few mere hours!

Walking back to my car, I thought over possible worst case scenarios and determined the following:

  1. I wait all day and the people ahead of me we get a vaccine but there are not enough left for me.
  2. There won’t be any doses at all and I would have spent several hours hanging around for nothing.

Not for nothing, though, because at least I would’ve tried, which already felt so much better than sitting around worrying and getting frustrated over the slow progress of the vaccine campaign in France or the fact that of all of the members of my husband and my family I am the only person unable to get vaccinated. No matter what happened, I was sure to know more at the end of the day than I did at the start, and that also felt like progress in a country where there seems to be a dearth of information about vaccines overall and many limitations on who can get one and how.

The vaccination center was setup inside of a large hippodrome with an equally large racetrack behind it. I decided to walk past just to get a lay of the land and also to keep my eyes out for a possible place to empty my tiny bladder. This is always in the back of my mind when I leave the house, especially in European countries where public toilets are often difficult to find.

I found a perfect, well-hidden spot behind hedgerow and decided to give it a test run. Then, noting that there were people running on the track, I decided to go for a walk. The weather was dynamic, with little bursts of rain here and there, but I have lived in far less pleasant climes and was not worried about a little precipitation. Certainly, a little rain or hail was not going to keep me from achieving my mission: desperate for a dose.

After walking around the track first time, I went back to my car to do some writing. With the windows down and the sun shining, I used voice recognition to capture my experience so far, periodically looking around to see people coming and going. I noticed some people waiting in their cars and then going in, presumably because they arrived earlier than their allotted appointment time. Other people drove in, parked, and walked right into the center. One woman sat in her car, finishing a cigarette before heading toward the center.

Really? I said out loud. Chacun sa préférence, I guess. To each their own.

I began experiencing a level of desperation where I become envious of the elderly or those suffering from some horribly debilitating illness or psychiatric disorder because they were eligible for a vaccine. This likely also speaks to my pandemic brain and overall extreme fatigue from over a year of stress and worry over the virus.

I made sure to quality my desire, the spiritual equivalent of knocking on wood.

Universe, I said silently. If you are listening, it is not my intention to be old or infirm. I am very thankful to be healthy. I would be ever grateful for vaccination if you can find it within your power to provide me with one. I’m doing my very best on my end, but I could definitely use a little help and a bit of luck or synchronicity or karma.

Speaking of superstition, perhaps I wondered if I should have held onto my lucky ears, which I had gifted to a friend in the fall 2019. But just like Monty Python could not have anticipated the Spanish Inquisition, I never would have guessed I would need them to help me get a vaccine during a global pandemic.

Two hours later, the parking lot was still full to bursting. The sun was also shining, so I decided to take another spin around the race track after visiting my secret spot behind the hedgerow.

Not wanting to irritate anyone by going back to where I signed in but also not wanting to miss out on a possible dose, I decided to first wander back towards the entrance. There were new security guards there, and the young man I asked this time had no idea if or when they might call people on the list. I said that I would just stick around and check back in from time to time since I have a foreign cell number and thanked him. As I was leaving, I took a quick peek at the piece of paper where I had signed my name and noticed that it had been turned over onto the back. Clearly, many more people had arrived and also put their names down in the past couple of hours, and I was relieved that I had gotten there early enough to be close to the top of the list.

I also noticed that there was still a steady stream of people going in with appointments, so I figured it would be a while yet before I might hear anything about extra doses to be had. The security guard I had spoken with said they were open until 6 PM, so I decided I would have to do my best to be patient for the next couple of hours and continue to hope for the best.

I watched people leaving and heading to their cars and tried to imagine myself as one of those lucky, vaccinated individuals. As I mentioned earlier, there is much to be said for intention, and I hoped that this envisioning exercise might help give me the best chance at a dose while trying to maintain a healthy level of low expectation at the same time. It was a tricky balance, to be sure, especially with so much at stake. I also sent text messages to friends and family, asking if they could send a little positive vaccination energy my way. I figured I can use all the help I could get, and I would be very grateful for it, regardless of the end result.

For some reason, I kept getting the song “Happy trails” in my head as I meandered around the landscaped area beside the center.

Happy trails to you until we meet again…

What can I say, music can also offer intention while having a weird sense of humor at the same time.

As this was all going on, I was sending a stream of updates via text to my parents and my husband. It helped to know there were other people holding me in their thoughts. My mom and I even began coming up with possible titles for this article, including, “Desperately seeking serum” after the movie, “Desperately seeking Susan” and “Jockeying for a Jab.”

After three hours of waiting and intermittently walking the race track or sitting in my car, I began to get tired. My thoughts returned to the comparison of getting a vaccine with standing in line and waiting for a ticket to a rock concert. In the latter situation, there were often scalpers selling tickets last minute to eager fans who hadn’t managed to buy a ticket the traditional way. Could there be people who might be wandering around right now with an extra dose or with the ability to sneak one out?

I imagined someone whispering, “Hey lady, looking for a dose? I can get one for you for 50 euros. Meet me behind the hippodrome at 1700 hours.

I contemplated how much I’d be willing to pay and checked to see how much cash I had on hand, even though I knew this story was likely another product of desperation combined with pandemic brain and fatigue.

Still, it’s important to be prepared, so I took out my wallet.

My cash on hand came to €33 and change, probably not enough for a dose of Pfizer but maybe it would get me an Astra Zeneca. There seems to be a fear of the Astra Zeneca across Europe since the news came out that a few people had developed blood clots after getting the vaccine. Combined with an overall anti-vaccination culture, this could give me the advantage I needed to get a vaccine.

I looked around the car but didn’t see anything else of value that I might trade. I stopped wearing earrings shortly after masks became obligatory, and I rarely bother putting on accessories since I spend most of my days sitting on the couch in pajamas. I mostly wear silver jewelry anyway, which does not have a very high resale value.

I texted my dad that perhaps I should try to bribe someone at the center to beg a dose. He texted back that he would be happy to help.

At this time, we were all still in relatively high spirits and jovially joking back and forth about the state of the world and the new “normal” experiences in life compared with how things had been little over a year earlier.

When we were anxiously waiting and hoping for my husband’s passport with the requisite visa for him to fly to Belgium in the fall 2016 at the start of his time as a doctoral student, my mother-in-law baked a batch of cookies for her local mailman, who went to the post office at 3am in the morning on the day of my husband’s flight, joined the people sorting the mail, found the priority envelope, and handed it off to us in the parking lot, where we stopped on our way to the airport. I didn’t think cookies would cut it in this situation, or a bribe for that matter, but I knew I had to keep my sense of humor or lose it altogether.

I walked back to the center at 4:30pm to see how things were progressing. I noticed a long line of people waiting to sign their names to the list. Approaching the front of the line, I also saw that the piece of paper with my name on it had been removed. Did that mean they had already started calling people?

I asked the security guard, and he said they had started calling people. Was there a way for me to find out if they had tried to call me? After much persistence, I finally was granted entry to ask one of the two staffers checking people in.

It was at this juncture that my hopes for getting a vaccine began to dwindle significantly. The first woman did not even look up from her paperwork to ask for my name to sign me in. I turned around and met the eyes of another security guard. He gestured for me to ask the next person.

This person informed me that they were calling people but she was not the person making the calls so she didn’t know if they had called me or not.

I have been here for hours, I explained. I am number 11 on the list.

It doesn’t matter where you are on the list, she said. We are prioritizing vaccination by age.

At this admonition I felt like I had been given a blow to the gut. There was nothing else for me to do but walk back outside and try to regroup.

I stayed with an ever-increasingly large group of people from 4:30-6:30pm, all of us hoping for a dose. In the end, it turned out that the list meant nothing at all. Around 5pm, a slightly overweight, older female staffer with bright red, large-rimmed glasses came out to replace the two younger male security guards, who had been directing people with appointments for most of the afternoon.

This woman began calling out age groups auction style, only a strange kind of auction with human beings on the block and the prices in reverse. At this point, there were well over a hundred people and the line stretched all the way to the parking lot.

Is there anyone age 55 or older? 55 or older?

Several people came forward and were herded into a line and then given a number as she waved them past her and toward the entrance to the center.

Then we waited.

Anyone age 55 or older? came the second call.

Can I get 54? Age 54? Anyone aged 54?

It went on this way for an hour another hour and a half.

I moved closer to the woman with the red-rimmed glasses so that I could hear everything going on. I found myself standing beside a group of teachers who were close to the entrance so I could hear what was going on.

The teachers were all amped up and kept calling out to the staff person to give teachers priority. They had heard that teachers were given priority at this same center on a previous day and were doing everything possible to convince the staff person to let them through.

There was absolutely no convincing this woman, however. In my experience so far trying to find a way to get a first dose of the vaccine, I have noticed that every medical personnel follows the rules to a t. There is no wiggle room whatsoever.

Even for people who were eligible in line, this staff person only let in a few at a time and made everyone else wait to side until she was given the go ahead to let them enter the center. She was more of a bouncer at a nightclub and took her duties very seriously. At one point, she let a man go in, who explained that his wife was just behind him. He waited at the door while his wife came running up to join him. As she approached the entrance at a job, the staffer put out her arm to bar the way. The poor woman was flushed and looked like she was about to stary weeping. I felt terrible for her, but then she was eventually let in so I did not feel that bad.

Why would they hire someone like that? the teachers asked.

It was very clear to me why they had hired her. She brought the big guns.

They hired her because this is a tough job, I suggested, though no one had asked me. If they had hired me, I would have let the first person in who started crying or brought me a kitten.

Oh, that’s such a good idea, one of the teachers said. We should bring them gifts!

I chatted with different people as we all waited, hoping for a dose. People under age 55 were really angry that those above age 55, who could have made an appointment for the vaccine, were there taking extra doses from those who couldn’t. There were literally people who had not been there waiting, who walked right up and past those of us who had been there for anywhere from a few minutes to several hours.

I explained to one woman that I had to get on a plane to move back to the United States in six weeks and that was why I was trying so hard to get a vaccine. She told me that her brother-in-law in the United States said she should just fly there and they would meet her at the airport with a vaccine. When I said that I would be traveling with my three cat and a dog, she jokingly suggested that I buy an extra seat for each animal to ensure lots of social distancing space on the plane.

At 6:21pm, other staffers and security guards came out to join forces with the red-rimmed glasses woman. It was at this point that they all began announcing that the center was officially out of doses and walking around the crowd to spread the word.

A woman to my left said that she had been there yesterday and gone home when they made this announcement, only to find out that the other people who had stayed wound up getting a dose. I stuck around another 10 minutes until another staffer called out to wish everyone a good evening before retreating back inside and closing the door behind him. Then I gave up and began the slow walk back to my car.

My husband sent me a “good job” text when I sent him the message that I was on my way home sans (without) vaccine. He greeted me in our front yard as I pulled into the driveway, clapping his hands and calling out, “Bravo!” as I got out of the car and walked toward him. He enfolded me in his arms, and I exhaled for what felt like the first time all day.

As we walked into the house together, I remarked that it was a much more French ending to the story than the typical happy Disney American ending.

Let’s hope for Disney next time, he said.

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