Thrive by IU Health

June 02, 2021

Vaccinating others helps heal the trauma of the past year for this nurse

Vaccinating others helps heal the trauma of the past year for this nurse

Erika Breivogel on administering her first COVID shot: “I had the biggest smile under my mask. I remember thinking this is finally going to end. Knowing every time I give that vaccine that is one less person who is going to get sick and possibly die. I can’t even explain what that does for my mental health. It’s phenomenal.”

By Maureen Gilmer, IU Health senior journalist, mgilmer1@iuhealth.org

With every COVID vaccine shot she gives, Erika Breivogel breathes a little easier.

The critical care nurse at IU Health Methodist Hospital cared for the very first COVID-positive patient admitted to Methodist last year.

She contracted the virus herself in November and became very ill.

And now she is working to prevent others from getting sick by administering the vaccine every chance she gets.

“This is my healing process,” the 29-year-old nurse said. “It’s closure.”

Breivogel had just gotten home last week from a shift at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, a massive, multi-day drive-up clinic where she and her colleagues have vaccinated tens of thousands of people over the past several weeks. The weather was beautiful that day, and she savored the experience.

Breivogel working with girls from her unit

“Today was amazing,” she said. “I worked with girls from my unit. We danced and laughed. I haven’t laughed with my co-workers like that in a long time.”

It’s a far cry from those early days a year ago when a cloud of fear and anxiety hung over most people, healthcare workers in particular.

The burden and the pressure were real, Breivogel says.

“I remember I got called to the charge office and they said they were assigning me the first COVID patient … It was pretty scary, I’m not gonna lie.”

She and her co-workers on 6 East would go on to care for hundreds of patients, some of whom did not make it. Breivogel carries the names of those who died in her head and in her heart, and honors their memory by doing all she can to stamp out the virus that has killed nearly 570,000 people in the United States alone.

She could have been among that staggering death toll when she contracted the virus around Thanksgiving.

“I remember when the test came back positive, I broke down in tears,” she said.

It hit her hard, keeping her out of work for nearly a month.

“I was very, very sick. And with my knowledge (gained from taking care of other patients), I was thinking the worst. I probably should have gone to the hospital.”

She gutted it out at home, alone, but armed with her knowledge as a nurse and support from fellow healthcare professionals.

She was on all the meds, she said – steroids, antibiotics, inhalers, breathing treatments. She was scared, knowing “COVID brain” is a real thing and she wasn’t always thinking straight. She monitored her oxygen levels though and knew to call for help if they fell too low.

Her recovery was a miracle, she said.

“I believe God was watching out for me because he needed me here to help other people. I truly believe that.”

Breivogel gets her vaccine

When she received her first vaccine shot, she cried.

“It was the sense of relief knowing I’m not going to get this disease again,” she said. “I can take a breath of fresh air and I can go home at night and rest easy knowing that I’m going to be safe, and my family’s going to be safe.”

When IU Health asked for vaccine clinic volunteers, she stepped right up, volunteering at the IU Health Neuroscience Center for many shifts and more recently at IMS.

She still remembers the first shot she administered.

“I had the biggest smile under my mask. I remember thinking this is finally going to end. Knowing every time I give that vaccine that is one less person who is going to get sick and possibly die. I can’t even explain what that does for my mental health. It’s phenomenal.”

It’s been months since the vaccines first became available, and Breivogel still volunteers at the clinics. It’s hard to explain to someone who hasn’t been on the front lines of the pandemic, she said.

Healthcare workers embrace each other

For her, the death toll is personal because the patients are personal to her. They are like family. She got to know how many kids and/or grandkids they had, what their pets’ names were, what they did for a living and what sports teams they rooted for. Now with younger, healthier people being affected by the virus, she worries they aren’t taking it as seriously as they should.

“I’ve seen a lot of patients suffer and die. You don’t really understand how difficult that is – to watch them suffer and be the last one … I’ve been the last person to hear people speak. They couldn’t have their family with them, so their families were relying on our iPads and phone calls.”

That’s why the vaccine clinics are filled with such joy, she said.

“These people are so happy, so excited, and they’re thanking you. I needed that.”

She is grateful for the love and support of her family, friends and co-workers over the past year, acknowledging she couldn’t have gotten through the challenges without them. And she sends out love to her patients and their families, vowing to never forget them.

She has faced her toughest battle, she said, and hopes to go through the rest of her life without experiencing another pandemic.

“I’m a whole new person. I can move on now. I was stuck in the mud of COVID, and now I feel like I’m climbing that mountain again and getting back on top of my life.”

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