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The education of a vaccinator

There were some frustrations in training for the vaccination programme, but now I am ready and anxious to get to work

It started with a phone call from a GP friend. She was gathering names of retired doctors to volunteer for the vaccination programme. Did I want to join them? Yes, of course. I heard nothing for several weeks and then HSE human resources phoned. Was I still registered? No, I voluntarily removed my name from the medical register last year. Had I an up-to-date anaphylaxis certificate? No. Would I be happy to work instead in a support role recovering people after their vaccine? Sure – I’ll go wherever I’m needed.

I looked up the Medical Council website and found that I could re-register painlessly (and for free) if I was going to do Covid-related work only. Well done, Medical Council. I then received an email from the HSE human resources advising me that I would need to do online training via the website HSeLanD. I spent the next several days stuck in this virtual rabbit-hole watching YouTube tutorials and PowerPoint presentations by lecturers who appeared to have lost the will to live. Having viewed these, I sat several online MCQ exams.

The jokes about this website had, it turned out, some basis in fact. (And why the mixture of capital and lower-case letters?) It was difficult, time-consuming, and frustrating, but I eventually completed all the required modules, which included Covid vaccines, hand hygiene, aseptic technique, fundamentals of the General Data Protection Regulation, and anaphylaxis. It was the first MCQ exam I had sat in many, many years.

I learned how to perform a variation of the Heimlich manoeuvre on a baby manikin; infants will not be vaccinated against Covid, but knowledge, they say, is never a burden

A week later, I was phoned by a man who ran basic life support courses. Could I be at the South Infirmary next Saturday? Yes, certainly. I found myself in the Education Centre of the South “Cha” at 8.30 on a bitterly cold morning. To comply with Covid rules ventilation guidelines, the windows were left open throughout, so we spent the entire day in close to freezing temperatures. Our group of 10 or so included at least three retired consultants, a couple of GPs still in practice, a pharmacist, two nurses, a physiotherapist, a doctor who appeared to work only in food allergies. We would spend the morning brushing up on basic life support and the afternoon on anaphylaxis.

Our course facilitators were two good-humoured women whose professional background was, I guessed, in nursing. Much had changed since I was last a member of the cardiac arrest team. The pandemic posed new challenges. Mouth-to-mouth resuscitation now appeared to be optional if we had concerns about catching Covid from the “patient”. I learned how to perform a variation of the Heimlich manoeuvre on a baby manikin; infants will not be vaccinated against Covid, but knowledge, they say, is never a burden.

There was a sight awkwardness when one of the facilitators showed a member of our class the correct method of holding the facemask of an Ambu bag. “I’m an anaesthetist,” the doctor volunteered, without rancour or irony. He proceeded to demonstrate to our facilitator how he did it. She took this remarkably well. Over lunch we exchanged stories about the HSE-land website and CPL, the recruitment company assisting the HSE in its recruitment of vaccinators. The stories about Leaving Cert results were, it seemed, not apocryphal. There was a mustn’t grumble, London Blitz-like good humour in the telling of these tales.

We spent the afternoon session learning about anaphylaxis. Just as the facilitators had to navigate around the presence of an anaesthetist during the morning, in the afternoon, they listened patiently to contributions from the food allergist, who knew a thing or two about anaphylaxis. Our training day ended with a session on the technique of intramuscular injection. (Another facilitator was scheduled to lead this, but mysteriously failed to turn up.) After a brisk exposition of the anatomical considerations, one of the facilitators asked, for the umpteenth time: “Am I making sense?” Desperate to leave this freezing tutorial room, we all nodded vigorously and formed an orderly queue to receive our certificates of attendance.

Three weeks later, I was phoned by a nice woman from the vaccination centre in Páirc Uí Chaoimh. Could I be there in an hour for the first dose of the Astra-Zeneca vaccine? “I’m on my way,” I said, gulping down my lunch. As I drove in, I pondered my risk of cerebral venous sinus thrombosis and concluded that at 61, I was far more likely to die of Covid.

The vaccination centre was run with military efficiency. Indeed, several uniformed soldiers were on duty, guiding people through the various stages. The nice woman who vaccinated me (I think she was Italian) reckoned I could start as a vaccinator after the first dose. Three weeks on, I’m still waiting for the call or email. I can’t remember being so anxious to get back to work. I’m ready.

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