Why volunteering as a 'vaccine angel' has been 'really good medicine' during the pandemic

Laura Jenkins
·8-min read
FILE - In this Jan. 20, 2021, file photo, registered nurse, Adele Prieto, left, receives her second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine from Lesia Turner at the Dallas County mass vaccination site at Fair Park in Dallas. As health officials race to vaccinate people across the U.S., the need to give each person two doses a few weeks apart is adding a layer of complexity to the country’s biggest-ever vaccination campaign. (AP Photo/LM Otero, File)
A registered nurse receives her second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine at the Dallas County mass vaccination site at Fair Park in Dallas. Some are booking their appointments with the aid of individuals or networks of volunteers known as "vaccine angels." (AP Photo/LM Otero, File)

Joe sounds uncomfortable. To be fair, he should be. At age 78, he's probably been warned many times not to give his personal information to strangers over the phone. Yet within sixty seconds of "Hello," he is offering me his name, address and date of birth. For the last three weeks, Joe and his wife (whose last names Yahoo Life agreed to withhold for privacy reasons) have been on their computer day and night, trying to find appointments for COVID vaccines — to no avail. So when a friend gave him my number and told him I might be able to help, he decided it was worth the risk. As I finish taking down their information, Joe timidly asks if I can answer one question.

"Sure," I say. "I'll try."

"Why are you doing this?" he asks. 

Now I'm uncomfortable.

It's not that I mind giving him my go-to answers: Volunteer work is fulfilling. I want to help us reach herd immunity. I believe that people over 65 should be near the front of the line. All of this is true. But a slightly modified version of his question has been nagging me for weeks, namely, why am I doing this to this extent? Why do I regularly stay up past midnight and awaken before dawn so I can grab appointments when they drop? Why do I spend hours every day refreshing multiple browsers, making phone calls and sending emails to complete strangers? Why have I neglected my job, my pets and sometimes even my husband and children so I can score "just one more?" I honestly don't know. And frankly, I'm a little embarrassed by how much it has taken over my life.

By now, most people have heard of "vaccine angels." We are individuals or networks of volunteers who help others book COVID-19 vaccine appointments. There are groups who do this all over the country. Since February, I've been one of Kendra’s Covid Coaches, a troop of more than 70 volunteers in the central Texas area who help to make vaccine appointments for people in need all over the state. 

This effort, which began in January, has resulted in thousands of people — first responders, the elderly, people with chronic medical conditions — taking their place at the front of the vaccine line. While people often assume we have some sort of "in" or secret partnership with providers, this isn't the case. We scramble for appointments just like everyone else. But the fact that we do it together makes us much more successful. Real-time alerts go out to our coaches-only WhatsApp group and when that happens, we drop what we're doing and book as many appointments as we can.

Most of us stumbled into this advocacy work because Kendra Wright, the group's founder, helped us find vaccine appointments for our vulnerable family members and friends. After searching in vain to get her own elderly father vaccinated, she doubled down on research, curated a list of reliable resources and then shared it publicly. Within a few weeks, that spreadsheet had become a grassroots movement. While her leadership anchors the effort, Wright will be the first to tell you it's the devotion of the volunteers, very few of whom have met in person, that have sustained it.

There's a difference, however, between devotion and obsession. Sometimes I wonder if I'm the only one who is teetering on that edge. 

Fellow coach Laura Catoe, an attorney by trade but currently a stay-at-home mom of four, assures me that I am not. When I describe the work as "addicting," she can relate.

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"There has to be some sort of serotonin release that happens when you're vying for an appointment," says Catoe, "especially when a thousand of them disappear in 10 minutes. Your hand shakes and you might even get a little nervous or sweaty because you're trying to grab one before they’re gone. There's some sort of adrenaline rush or high that happens when you finish that sprint. I definitely think there's a physiological aspect to it.”

Susan Ansorge, an Austin-based psychologist, confirms Catoe's suspicion.

"It's well documented that all those good hormones are released when we help others," she says. "I know I'm oversimplifying here, but I'm referring to chemicals like dopamine, oxytocin and serotonin. As an intern, I worked with a veteran at a VA hospital and he literally said, 'I was worried last week that you drugged me. When I left I kind of felt like I had shot up with heroin.'"

"'No,' I told him. 'It’s just that we had a strong connection. What you felt was a surge of hormones that mimic the opioids,'" she recalls. 

In addition to stimulating positive chemical responses in the brain, Ansorge says that volunteer and advocacy work can help reduce stress in a number of ways. It helps us feel more connected, which in turn provides us with a sense of community and meaning. It can distract us from worry and negative thinking. Serving others can also help place our own lives in perspective because we're often interacting with people who are facing difficult circumstances.

Ben Salinas, the unofficial appointment wizard of Kendra's Covid Coaches, has experienced this many times. He does love the challenge of snapping up appointments and matching them with the right people. But it’s ultimately the personal connections that fuel his passion to help as many people as he can.

"Behind each of the names on the spreadsheet there's always a story," says Salinas, a 34-year-old engineering consultant, husband and father. "One of the first people I helped always sticks out to me. She was an older woman who had a sister in Colorado who was dying. She was desperately looking for a vaccine. All she wanted was to go and see her sister one last time."

"There are hundreds more of that type of story," he says. "But that was the moment I realized, 'Hey, this is not just clicking buttons and connecting people. It's really having a big impact on each individual, myself included.'"

Most people don’t consciously help others because they want to get something out of it. But there does seem to be a transactional nature to advocacy and volunteer work, especially when it involves vulnerable populations. Claudia Ocampo, a licensed professional counselor in Georgetown, Tex., says that quite often when we help others, we're also healing ourselves.

"Every one of us has suffered trauma," says Ocampo. "A lot of times it's easier to disconnect from that and stuff it down. Even if we don't think about it or actively deal with it, we know it's there. When we interact with vulnerable people, it allows us to indirectly access our own pain and suffering, our own vulnerability. It extends our window of tolerance to sit on it, or even to witness it from far away. Just a little bit of exposure, even if you don't want to access or engage it, can be healing."

COVID-19 vaccines are essentially ground zero for a year that many of us would rather forget. As someone who lives with chronic illness, I had to isolate myself to limit exposure to the virus. Setting and keeping those boundaries was often difficult, especially when it caused conflict with others. And like many, being in quarantine for over a year has tested my relationship with my partner. 

But I’m well aware that I’m one of the lucky ones. The pandemic has taken a massive toll on so many people. More than 500,000 Americans have died. Thousands who fell ill are now COVID long-haulers, still suffering the effects of the virus weeks or months later. The loss of jobs and income and homes and businesses have affected hundreds of thousands of lives. I suspect that there's collective grief so big and so complicated that we have only begun to acknowledge it. Or maybe we're not ready to acknowledge it at all. All I know is that scheduling vaccine appointments for people, one by one, has not only helped them, but it has also helped me. And maybe that's nothing to be embarrassed about.

Joe and his wife are now fully vaccinated. Though I was their "coach," the person who stayed in touch and kept them apprised of our efforts, it was actually Salinas and Catoe who teamed up to book their appointments. Getting people "poked," as Wright would say, is the point of being a vaccine angel. But the steady stream of hope this gig affords has been really good medicine. Every story I hear soothes the ache of the last year just a little bit more. 

Salinas remembers one in particular that completely took him by surprise.

"I had called a woman to confirm her appointment because the email address was wrong," he says. "I told her, 'If you're not able to make it for any reason you can call this number.' She said, 'No, stop. There's no way I'm missing this appointment. I haven't been out of my house for a year!' When we finished talking she thought she had hung up the phone. But just before I ended the call I heard her scream out in joy about how excited she was. I remember thinking, ‘This is why we do this.'"

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