Even though employee health nurse Julie Hirsch was literally surrounded by the COVID-19 vaccine and was encouraging fellow employees, patients, and friends to get vaccinated, she wasn't ready to take that step herself. The Gundersen St. Elizabeth's Hospital and Clinics veteran RN hadn't received a vaccine in more than two decades.
About a month after receiving a flu shot in 1995, the then-24-year-old experienced numbness in her hands and feet. Her wrists weakened until she couldn't hold a glass. Soon, her feet began to drop and Julie started tripping and falling.
"This was 1995. There was no such thing as 'googling it.' I was pouring over library books and medical encyclopedias, trying to figure out what was going on," Julie says.
Julie was diagnosed with Guillain-Barre syndrome (GBS), a rare autoimmune disorder when the body's immune system mistakenly attacks its own nervous system. It's sometimes triggered by vaccination.
Although never hospitalized, Julie needed help from family, friends, and colleagues to continue living independently in her second-floor apartment. For months, she walked with a cane and wore ankle orthotics. Through it all, she never stopped working.
"My managers at then-Saint Elizabeth's Medical Center in Wabasha continued to find me appropriate work that I could handle," she says.
"From medical records to research to data-input. They cheered me on, carried my lunch tray, and drove me to work. But I missed patient care. I set a goal for myself to be back on the nursing floors within two years of my diagnosis."
With the help of physical therapy and donated blood that replaces the harmful antibodies attacking the nervous system, Julie met her goal. Two years after her diagnosis, she was again providing patient care. And that's where she stayed for the next two decades.
While she does still encounter a small foot drop, "Guillain-Barre hasn't hindered me from experiencing any major life events," she says.
Julie bought a house, got married, had three sons, and continued nursing.
But one thing she didn't experience again – another vaccine. Even though she knew the risk of experiencing GBS again was incredibly rare, she feared the unknown.
"Sometimes the fear of the unknown consumes us more than the fear of the known," says Raj Naik, MD, Medical Director of Informatics at Gundersen Health System. "It's just human nature to feel this way.
However, when analyzing the benefits and risks of vaccines, our human nature can work against our ability to make the best decision for our health. The risk of serious side effects such as GBS from routinely recommended vaccines including COVID-19 vaccines are extremely rare."
Julie practiced good hand hygiene, stayed home when she was sick, and – during cold and flu season – socially distanced before most of us even knew what that meant.
A new role with a new perspective
In 2019, Julie took on her current role at Gundersen St. Elizabeth's: employee health nurse. A year into her new assignment, a global pandemic swept across the country.
"I was fielding COVID-like illness calls and testing team members multiple times a week," Julie says. "As a small but mighty team of three employee health nurses, we were on call 24/7. My day would start early in the morning when employees began calling in with symptoms."
Julie and her team's steadfastness paid off; not one of the nearly 100 assisted living tenants and nursing home residents living at Gundersen St. Elizabeth's Care Center died due to COVID.
When Gundersen St. Elizabeth's nurses began administering the COVID vaccine out of the Wabasha Fire Department's fire hall in early 2021, Julie was there to monitor.
"The first clinic was offered to those 75 and older. And, despite a blizzard that day in late January, everyone who registered showed up," Julie says. "I've been a nurse for a long time and experiencing the patient's reaction from the first vaccine administered was truly amazing. It's the most rewarding work I've ever done. I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, maybe we can get ourselves out of a pandemic.'"
That's also when Julie began to think about her own health and safety.
"I knew that if I was diagnosed with COVID because I'd had GBS, there was a possibility of getting quite sick," the Lake City native says.
"My fear of getting COVID outweighed my fear of getting GBS again."
So, on a hot and sticky Wednesday in July, Julie sat down with her friend and fellow nurse whom she had asked to administer the vaccine.
"My whole team knew what a journey this has been," Julie says.
"For each recommended vaccine, the benefits far outweigh the risks," says Dr. Naik. "I'm so glad that Julie was able to use her experience and healthcare knowledge to overcome her fear of the small risk of GBS. She made an informed choice to get vaccinated against COVID-19 to keep herself, her family, her patients, and her community safe."
After getting her shot, Julie returned to work taking care of the nurses who've, throughout the pandemic and before, cared for us.
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