For Dr. Stanley S. Brown, a member of the internal medicine program at the Oklahoma State University Medical Center in Tulsa, the sudden emergence of a novel coronavirus in the beginning of 2020 was a moment of trepidation.
“Like everyone else, I had no idea what to expect at the very beginning. Was this something that was going truly change the world as we know it, or was this a ‘sky is falling’ event that was going to pass within a few weeks?” he said.
But this 2002 University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma graduate quickly began to see that this virus was indeed going to become a major public health crisis, and he readied himself to play a critical role on the front lines of this pandemic despite not even knowing what exactly he was facing at the time.
“When the numbers began to become truly staggering, I was very nervous—for myself, my family, my coworkers and friends,” he said. “We saw the numbers rise on the coasts and in other countries, and I knew it was only a matter of time before the wave crashed down on our region and state. I braced myself emotionally while preparing mentally to treat patients infected with a disease process we didn’t truly understand—and are still figuring out—how to best treat.”
Thankfully, Dr. Brown was in the first group of Oklahomans to receive Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine, getting his first shot Dec. 17 and the follow-up dose Jan. 7 at St. Francis Hospital in Tulsa. While he did notice “a little bit of diffuse muscle aches with some minor fatigue the following two days” after his second dose, he stresses that this is a completely normal part of the vaccination process and should not be a cause of concern at all.
“Mild temperature elevations, fatigue and muscle aches are not uncommon when your body is initially building an immune response with the aid of a vaccine…and no, the vaccine cannot and will not give you COVID-19,” said Brown. “I have had multiple friends and family ask me if I’m concerned about the potential long-term side effects of the vaccine. My answer is: if I’m alive 50 years from now to see what those ‘unknown, possible, unlikely, future’ side effects perhaps may be, then the vaccine did the job.”
As someone who sees the toll that the coronavirus is taking on other Oklahomans every day, Dr. Brown notes that being vaccinated not only protects him from this deadly disease, but safeguards his family, friends, coworkers, patients and everyone else he comes into contact with. Given the wide range of severity of this illness, a far-reaching vaccination program greatly cuts down the risk for everyone.
“I think everyone has heard about the concept of super-spreaders in some form or another,” said Brown. “There are people who contract the virus and are completely asymptomatic. That’s very lucky for them, however they can unknowingly infect many others, and some of those people potentially are in the high-risk population. We all have to do our part to come together and overcome this pandemic as a unified community."
While Oklahoma has a fairly high rate of per capita vaccinations compared to many states, it is important that everyone continues to follow the CDC guidelines until a significantly higher level is reached. Dr. Brown worries that people will let their guard down after their jab and will stop wearing masks and practicing social distancing. He cautions that the vaccines are not a silver bullet and that it must work in tandem with these other measures to defeat this virus. Having seen the worst that this disease can do, Dr. Brown and the others on his team have been working hard to do just that, but it has tested everyone’s limits.
“This has definitely been the most challenging experience throughout my medical training,” he said. “The nights in the ICU were very tough emotionally on all of us. There were nights you had to make phone calls to multiple families, letting them know their loved one died. I definitely leaned on my fellow residents in my program for emotional support, both inside and outside the hospital. I’ve never been in military combat before, so I would never compare anything to that experience; however, treating patients during this pandemic with my fellow residents at my side is closest thing I could imagine to being dug into a foxhole with others. You rely on them, and them on you, when making decisions for your patients that could mean the difference between life and death. I can’t say enough about how our attending doctors, nurses and all staff members came together over this last year.”
With how crucial personal connection is for emotional support, the necessity of keeping contacts to a minimum has made everyone’s experience of the pandemic that much harder. And with the potential for large social gathering to become super-spreader events, many other forms of entertainment are suddenly unavailable. Dr. Brown did manage a Zoom holiday with family at least, but he is ready to properly celebrate with his parents as soon as the pandemic is over.
“I missed Christmas, Thanksgiving and both of their birthdays this year. I’ve only seen them twice over the last six months, and those two times were through the kitchen window last fall. I’m very close to my family and not seeing them has made this year and whole experience that much more difficult,” he said.
Overall, once the pandemic has subsided, Dr. Brown hopes that this whole experience will make people realize how interconnected our world is and how even small choices that we make can have a big impact on others’ lives. His own experiences as a medical professional dealing with such an unprecedented crisis have taught him a great deal about how important these connections are.
“You can’t sustain day in and day out stressors of this magnitude without having a healthy outlet and others to help you get through the most challenging times. I like to think of myself as an independent person who has been capable of tackling most challenges life has thrown my way. Going through this pandemic has given me much more insight into the importance of mental health,” said Brown. “I’m hoping the silver lining in this whole pandemic is we learn the importance of caring for ourselves, and being there for our fellow human beings. This is what will ultimately help us as a society overcome the adversity we face on a daily basis.”
To register for the vaccine in Oklahoma, visit vaccinate.oklahoma.gov.