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Why did I get the COVID-19 vaccine? Two St. Jude families share their stories

By Stacey Wiedower

image of someone getting a vaccine

Paula Elsener has three children, one of whom has twice battled cancer. As each of her kids became eligible for COVID-19 vaccination, Elsener was able to breathe a little easier. "It was a big sigh of relief for me that another child could get it," she said. "It was just another level of protection for our whole family."

For the Elseners, social distancing and mask wearing weren't new concepts when the world entered a global pandemic. "After my son's transplant we had to social distance with him because he had no immune system, so we had been doing this for quite a while," she said. "When COVID hit, we were on extra super high alert because my son's immune system wasn't fully back yet."

For similar reasons, getting her family vaccinated against COVID-19 was an easy choice for Kimberly Jessop. Her son, Bailey, 16, has battled osteosarcoma. Jessop herself has been diagnosed with cancer twice. For the Jessops, COVID-19 vaccination was a matter of when, not if.

Bailey, who was diagnosed at age 12, was anxious to get the jab. "He actually was asking, 'When am I going to get vaccinated?'" Jessop said. "I guess it says a lot that he wants to protect himself." As a mom, Jessop weighed more than the risks of contracting the virus. She wanted to allow her kids the freedom to live normal teenage lives—as safely as possible. "Bailey needed that. He needed the social interaction," she said. "He needed as much as I could give him because he'd already missed so much."

We (got the vaccine) so we could get back to life and normalcy,. So I could return to the gym for my physical and mental health. So the kids could return to school without fear.

Paula Elsener


Elsener agreed. Along with protecting her son, Tristan, Elsener and her family got the vaccine so they could feel comfortable going about their daily lives and spending time with Elsener's elderly parents. "We did it so we could get back to life and normalcy," she said. "So I could return to the gym for my physical and mental health. So the kids could return to school without fear."

In their household of five, all have received the primary vaccine series. The three who are eligible have had booster shots. Elsener said she felt the risks of getting vaccinated weren't as scary as the less-predictable risks of getting the virus. And the family's side effects were mild. "Sometimes we got the shot and felt nothing," she said. "Sometimes we got a second shot and felt a little yucky for 12 to 24 hours. In my mind, that pales in comparison to what could be a potential hospital stay."

Elsener knows more about that than any mother should. While Tristan was at St. Jude, he spent 25 days in the ICU and also spent time on a ventilator. "I know firsthand what it looks like to see your child hooked up like that, fighting for his life," she said. "And I knew that was something that I never wanted to see him go through again, or anyone that I loved go through. So if I had to feel yucky for 12 hours, I would take that over the heartbreak of days in the ICU being terrified and not knowing what was going to happen to your loved one. If you've ever seen someone in that state, you would never wish that upon anyone and you would do anything to prevent it."

Elsener said that knowing the people around her and her immunocompromised son are vaccinated makes a big difference to her peace of mind. "Vaccination is important for St. Jude families because we are all fighting for our children," she said. "It's all about the children and keeping them safe and curing them from cancer. To me, this is just one thing that you do to protect and save your children."

Jessop lives in an area where COVID-19 vaccination is not universally accepted. She has talked with co-workers, friends and her kids' teachers about why choosing to get vaccinated to protect others is important to her. "If it was you, and you had done everything in your power to keep this kid alive or keep yourself alive, and you're still doing it, you would want everyone to be vaccinated," she said. "I understand that there are people who can't get the vaccine. But for the majority of people who are healthy and who can help protect others, it just seems like a no-brainer. Socially we help each other in other ways. I have a hard time understanding the decision not to get vaccinated."

Jessop and Elsener have more in common than kids who have experienced life-threatening illness. They both want their families to feel free to safely enjoy their lives, to connect with others. And they both understand what it's like to rely on the advice of scientists and medical experts to help them make lifesaving decisions.

"My son has battled cancer twice, and each time St. Jude was there to save his life," Elsener said. "St. Jude has expertise and knowledge beyond mine. I am not a scientist and do not have a medical degree. If I can trust them to save my child from cancer, then why wouldn't I trust them when they say the vaccine is safe and the best way to protect him? We moved mountains to save my son's life. This is just a shot in the arm."

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