Novelist Louisa Young enjoys purpose and praise as a volunteer vaccinator
Vaccination volunteers at the Sheffield Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust – Photo: STH.NHS.UK
When my future grandchildren ask what I did in the pandemic, I will serenely pat the jewels in my heavenly crown, and say, yeah, I did something. Nearly 81 million doses of Covid vaccine have been given in the UK now, and a few hundred have been given by me.
I am one of the lucky people for whom the first lockdown was delightful, so long as I didn’t look over the parapet. Heatwave, birdsong, Ocado, garden. What’s not to like? But over the parapet was different: too many duties, too little money, no access to outside, frustrated kids, domestic violence. Illness. Death. When half the population are having nervous breakdowns in frantic NHS wards, or trying to homeschool while simultaneously working from home, and the other half are lounging about moaning about Netflix, there’s clearly something wrong.
My daughter and I had Christmas socially distanced on a picnic table in the park; I wore a wetsuit under my clothes for warmth. Lovely, but after that, glumness set in. Every day, the radio had interviews with weeping nurses, suffering doctors, bereaved families. The local food bank never got back to me. Was there really nothing useful I could do? People tend to think lockdowns are nice for writers, because we basically live in lockdown anyway, right? But that’s not true. How can we write about human existence when there’s none to be seen? We need people to eavesdrop on. I was desperate to get out of the house.
I can’t recall exactly how I found the perfect cure for both the feeling of utter uselessness and the stir-craziness. An advert? The headline read: “Train as a vaccinator with St John Ambulance.” OMG I jumped at it. Something to do! Something useful! But most of all, and call me cheap, something exciting. Injecting people! Writers always need a story, and this one was a classic, starring me as some kind of saviour. Later I trained to drive the mobile vaccination units – like a big ambulance with treatment rooms in the back – including setting up the generator. This couldn’t but encourage plucky-gal-on-the-Western-Front fantasies. My favourite.
My main joy is the fine inkwork on the upper arms of the people of Kent. So many look up at me dolefully, saying: “I don’t like needles!” when they are liberally etched with dragons and felines, roses and anchors
I am as useless as the next person at doing anything administrative online, so I ended up, as my friend Kate Hesketh-Harvey (who also trained) put it, ‘practically a doctor’, through the simple error of not being able to tell training modules apart and therefore doing far too many. But god I love a course and a certificate. In the end I got twelve, including Fire Marshall, Consent, Safeguarding, Vaccine Storage and Cold Chain Supply. Things I may never need, but need to know. How safe it makes me feel, knowing that. A feeling of safety goes a long way, during a period of fear.
Then came the great prize of January 2021: a day out for training. For the first time in almost a year, at the Radisson Blue Hotel near Heathrow, I met new people, talked, worked and achieved something with them. We were a fireman, a policeman, students, actors, a goth, retired people, and a guy who so wanted to go on holiday he would do anything to speed up the process. Our instructors, humorous and knowledgeable, were volunteers too. Wrapped in our PPE, we lay on the institutional carpet and put each other in the recovery position; we smiled wisely knowing there’d be no mouth-to-mouth; we concentrated on defibrillators, and hygiene, and on strapping pink leather pads to our arms for, finally, injecting. It’s just one little movement, at right angles, into the deltoid, three fingers below the shoulder.
I longed to vax at the centre in Westminster Abbey: what could be more glorious than joining in a national effort under the Gothic vaults of Poets’ Corner? My second choice was the Science Museum in South Kensington. The poetry of it! I ended up in the old Debenhams building in Folkestone, my Bubble-On-Sea, where my boyfriend Michel lives. Under redundant signs saying “Womenswear” and “Larger Bust”, I donned my T-shirt and lanyard, signed in and took charge of my little trolley. These things remain thrilling for a person who always works alone and never knows if what they’re doing is any good. Plus free doughnuts. How the jewels in my heavenly crown twinkled. I may have become unbearable.
Late one session, I had the pleasure of calling Michel in for his second jab, as we had a batch not quite finished. My main joy, though, is unfettered access to the fine inkwork on the upper arms of the people of Kent. So many look up at me dolefully, saying: “I don’t like needles!” when they are liberally etched with dragons and felines, roses and anchors. “In the eye of the tiger, madam? Certainly!” The feeling of satisfaction when they say “What, have you done it?” and you have, and they didn’t feel it! Most people don’t bleed at all, but you have to be prepared for the possible sudden spurt. You don’t want to get blood on their shirts (gives us a bad name to have them leave dripping) but you can’t avoid the: “Yeah, my mum always called me a little bleeder”, jokes. And why do so many people wear tight sleeves to their vaccination? It’s important not to laugh – or swoon – when someone has to take their shirt off.
Seeing the public, being queued for, having a little chat and giving people what they want, echoes the writer’s moment of contact when signing books at a festival, which we tend to love, and miss when we don’t get it. (The novelist Sarah Perry another writer/vaccinator, made this point recently too, it’s not just me.) One of my favourites was a lady in a wheelchair, nearly 100, so thin and papery her arm was almost narrower than the needle was long. Very tenderly did I inject her. ‘Lovely,’ said her helper. ‘Now you’re all fixed for your trip to Paris.’ You can judge how good a day has been by how many times you’ve been thanked.
In Southall, where I also vax, the citizens have many languages: Tamil, Urdu, Punjabi, Hindi, Somali. Sometimes it’s an issue. “Have you ever suffered from thrombosis?” I ask men with bright turbans and scarlet masks, a beautiful colour scheme. I peer at the screen, ticking boxes. “Yes”, they say cheerfully. “Construction work.” I fear they’re being more polite than comprehending. But it doesn’t matter: I have multilingual NHS colleagues, laminated translation sheets, and translators on tap at the end of the phone. We are well supported. We need to be. Husbands and sons sometimes say: “Yes, she consents”, and we delicately have to get the answer direct from her, without upsetting him. And we do. We’re here to help the NHS and everybody, that’s all. St John Ambulance has now coordinated one million hours of Covid support. Inside the green shirts, individual volunteers beam.
Louisa Young is the award-winning author of fourteen books, including “My Dear I Wanted to Tell You”. Her most recent is a memoir of her life with the composer Robert Lockhart – “You Left Early: A True Story of Love and Alcohol”. Her new novel, “Twelve Months and a Day”, is out next spring. Young is half of Zizou Corder, author of the bestselling “Lionboy” trilogy (the other half is her daughter, the actor Isabel Adomakoh Young). She’s also a singer/songwriter with her band Birds of Britain