Big Shots

For nearly a year, a Covid-19 vaccine felt like a pipe dream. Then, seemingly overnight, it was here. What it meant to the front-line workers and long-term care residents who were first in line

Amid all the fear and recrimination over the procurement and distribution of vaccines, the people who need them most have been slowly starting to get them. Their load—both physical and mental—has been lightened. Here are a few of their stories.


The Palliative Care Doctor

Harleen Toor, 32
Mount Sinai Hospital
Vaccinated January 6, 2021

“In my day-to-day, I see patients who are undergoing treatment for cancer: chemotherapy, radiation, surgery. It was clear from the onset of the pandemic that these patients—all of them highly vulnerable—still needed care and needed to come into the hospital. I don’t see the vaccine as representative of the end of the pandemic; I see it as an extra layer of assurance while we continue on. It’s a step toward reducing some of the stress and burnout, because it will unquestionably be easier to be in a treatment room while patients are getting chemotherapy, knowing they’re protected. It’s also been a very long year of being away from family and friends. Even the glimpse of some kind of normalcy arriving soon is exciting.”

The Speech-Language Pathologist

Lorraine Zandi-Wong, 33
Michael Garron Hospital
Vaccinated January 6, 2021

“Working without a vaccine was nerve-racking. Part of my job includes feeding patients to assess their swallowing function and communication abilities, two tasks that certainly carry exposure risk. I was worried about getting Covid. I have two children under five and my elderly parents are in the same household. My greatest fear was having my health affected so that I couldn’t care for them or, even worse, infecting them. Receiving the vaccine was painless and liberating.”

The ER Doctor

Don Melady, 62
Mount Sinai Hospital
Vaccinated December 22, 2020

“In many ways, Covid has changed my work life a lot less than it has other people’s. This is what we do in the emergency department: look after sick people. Still, it’s nice to know the vaccine gives me additional protection. Am I willing to throw off my mask and kiss a grocery store clerk? No. When I posted on Facebook that I got my vaccination, people asked about the side effects. I replied: ‘Joy, an increased sense of optimism and a general feeling of well-being.’ ”

The Clinical Social Worker

 Shawna Rich, 45
Women’s College Hospital
Vaccinated January 14, 2021

“I’ve been a therapist for 20 years, but in the fall, I started working at the Bay Centre for Birth Control at Women’s College Hospital as a clinical social worker specializing in sexual health and pre- and post-abortion support. Clients right now aren’t permitted to have a loved one accompany them to their appointments, so sometimes I’ll be with a woman from assessment until surgery. Even behind full PPE, I feel uneasy in a small examination room with other people, so getting the vaccine helps me feel safer. The experience was surreal. The woman who gave me the shot was the only person outside of work and home I’d been that close to in a long time. It was the first time since last March that someone wasn’t trying to keep their distance from me.”

The Emergency Physician

Andrew Jordan Organek, 40
Sinai Health System and Scarborough Health Network
Vaccinated December 22, 2020

“It was such a tiny needle and such a small amount of medication, but the relief was immense. Only months before, a vaccine had seemed so impossible, so far off—yet there I was. I was smiling ear to ear. After getting the vaccine, I headed in for another shift in the ER and felt like I had an added layer of armour. It’s a huge relief to know I’m much less likely to spread this to my patients or to bring it home to my husband.”

The Pediatrician

Anna Banerji, 56
St. Joseph’s Health Centre and Costi Pediatric Clinic
Vaccinated January 7, 2021

“I work with refugee children. But when refugees stopped coming because of Covid, I spent a lot of time doing phone assessments with people who had Covid, making sure they were doing okay. I’ve talked to thousands of people. In March, I had Covid myself. I had chills, fatigue, muscle aches and abdominal pain. Then I noticed I couldn’t smell the hyacinth in my garden. It took six months for my smell and taste to return—they’re still not 100 per cent. When I returned to work, the fact that I had some degree of immunity made me a little less stressed than my colleagues. But we don’t know how long immunity lasts, and there have been cases of reinfection, so I was encouraged to get the shot anyway. The vaccine signalled a new phase: now there’s the potential for hope.”

The Occupational Therapist

Sarah Davidson, 45
Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital
Vaccinated January 1, 2021

“Working during the pandemic has been emotional. I’ve been pulled in so many directions, especially with my school-aged kids being home for much of the last year. I am forever grateful I’m able to work. My colleagues have been a big support—they have become my family and friends, the people I’ve come to rely on for so much. I got the call about the vaccine on my walk home from work on New Year’s Eve. I felt a rush of hope. This was the first step toward what we all want: to be connected to our pre-pandemic lives.”

The Long-Term Care Resident

Jim Hayes, 79
Chester Village residence
Vaccinated December 31, 2020

“When you turn on the TV and hear the number of people who are dying in long-term care homes every day, you worry. But then right at the end of the year, there was an announcement over the PA speakers: ‘You’re going to get the vaccine tomorrow.’ Okay! I figured I’d have to go down to the lounge or get in a line, but the nurse came right to my room. To get the vaccine on New Year’s Eve and think, There’s hope for me and, hopefully, for the country—it was a relief.”

The ICU Nurse

Raajpreet Sekhon Lakhani, 33
Toronto General Hospital
Vaccinated January 3, 2021

“Patients who need advanced life support come to us at Toronto General’s medical surgical intensive care unit, which means we get the sickest of the sick. Since the fall, it’s been non-stop. When we found out that front-line workers could enter a lottery to get doses that were left over from long-term care homes, it was like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: ‘Am I going to get that golden ticket?’ I feel privileged to have gotten the vaccine. It helped me see the light at the end of the tunnel. But it hasn’t made an impact on our ICU yet: our patients are very, very sick, and we’re stretched so thin. We still have a long road to go.”

The Respiratory Therapist

Jhoanna Morlock, 38
Holland Bloorview
Vaccinated January 1, 2021

“Respiratory therapists are often the first ones called in when a patient shows signs of breathing problems. I remember in the early days of the pandemic, amid all the uncertainty and fear, how quickly the team devised a plan to ensure everyone stayed safe. But it was still stressful, especially because I have a husband and two kids at home. My husband fondly referred to me as the ‘wild card’ of transmission. If any of them had got sick, we’d know exactly who’d brought the virus home. The vaccine gave me peace of mind that I’m keeping myself, my family and my patients safe.”

The Trauma Therapist

Tessa Colthoff, 41
Women’s College Hospital
Vaccinated December 17, 2020

“I’ve been at Women’s College Hospital for 12 years, working with adults who experienced childhood trauma, but once the pandemic started, I was redeployed to our Covid assessment centre. There we support patients who are homeless, underhoused or looking to access the shelter system. They need a negative swab before they’re accepted into congregate living settings. I’m glad that I can play a small part in helping them navigate a complex system at a vulnerable time in their lives. I was grateful to get a vaccine. Even though I know I’m protected by PPE, there’s always a part of me that feels anxious. The vaccine removes that worry and allows me to help the people I work with.”

The Home-Care Doctor

Marnie Howe, 40
Mount Sinai Hospital
Vaccinated January 2, 2021

“I provide palliative care to patients in their homes, where I have far less control over the environment. As a result, many of our physicians and nurses have been infected with Covid. The vaccine came at such a crucial time. Our caseloads have been increasing as more patients with Covid are deciding to stay at home or return to their homes to die. My staff and I had been feeling tired and burnt out, so to hear our team was about to be vaccinated was such a relief. I drove to the clinic in a bit of a daze. I couldn’t believe it was happening. On the drive home, I was so distracted—just overwhelmed with hope and joy.”

The Family Doctor

Sheila Wijayasinghe, 42
St. Michael’s Hospital and Women’s College
Vaccinated January 7, 2021

“I was on maternity leave at the beginning of the first lockdown and returned last October. Back at work, I’ve noticed the strain on people’s mental health. Many of our patients aren’t able to access important services in a timely fashion—abortion care and some elective surgeries—and that can have repercussions. We are working to improve that. When I heard my colleagues and I could get the vaccine, it meant we could continue our work. When a health care provider gets sick and is out of commission, that increases the strain on a system that’s already under a lot of pressure. And although I’m not a high-risk individual, my patients are vulnerable. I want to protect them and protect our community.”

The Internal Medicine Doctor

Reed Alexander Siemieniuk, 32
Hamilton Health Sciences and William Osler Health System
Vaccinated January 1, 2021

“My colleagues and I have been so burnt out. It’s emotionally challenging to care for so many people who die without their families beside them, and it can feel hopeless not to have treatment options that make a difference in their last moments. On a personal level, it’s been hard to go through all this without seeing my friends and family in person, the people I usually lean on for support. To me, the vaccine represents hope. I was vaccinated first thing in the morning on New Year’s Day. I felt so lucky—like this might be the beginning of the end of this nightmare.”

The ER Nurse

Emily Smith, 33
Sunnybrook Hospital
Vaccinated January 1, 2021

“Sunnybrook was the first place to have a Covid-19 patient, back in January 2020. I started treating Covid patients around February or March. In the ER, we don’t know if they’re positive or not, but if they’re showing symptoms or have a known exposure, we don additional PPE and try to isolate them. I give them medications and fluids, prep them for imaging, give oxygen as necessary and collect swabs. Over the past year, I’m not sure how many Covid patients I’ve seen. Hundreds maybe? Initially it was scary; now it’s a little more routine. What is alarming is that we’re now seeing a lot of young people who are otherwise healthy come in with Covid. The vaccine is a bit of a reassurance that there is an end date for the nightmare. It’s also a testament to what scientists can do with proper funding and worldwide collaboration to solve a problem. Covid-19 was identified in December, and a year later we had a working vaccine for it. That’s incredible.”

This story appears in the March 2021 issue of Toronto Life magazine. To subscribe, for just $29.95 a year, click here.


February 16, 2021

An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Shawna Rich as a sexual health counsellor.