by Susan Fotovich McCabe
Special to The Leaven
ATCHISON — It’s a story akin to the miracle of the loaves and fish. On Jan. 8, 150 Benedictine Sisters and laypeople within the Mount St. Scholastica community and its long-term care facility here, the Dooley Center, received their first of the two-dose, Pfizer COVID-19 vaccination.
There was only supposed to be enough of the vaccine to cover 100 people.
“According to the state’s Phase I eligibility criteria, residents of the Dooley Center, its direct care employees, kitchen and cleaning staff were first to get the vaccine,” said Sister Esther Fangman, OSB, the Mount’s prioress.
“After that, we had a limited number of vaccines available for the Sisters. That’s how the day started,” she continued. “I thought there might be 20 of us who wouldn’t get it. That number dropped to 10 and eventually everyone who could get the vaccine got it. It was a miracle!”
Because the Dooley Center is a licensed long-term care facility in Kansas, its residents and direct care workers were among the first group of individuals eligible to receive the first vaccine, according to Sister Esther.
As a bonus, the young CVS pharmacy intern who administered the vaccine to the Sisters and laypersons was a St. James Academy, Lenexa, graduate and longtime admirer of the Benedictine community.
Mikayla Rico, 21, is currently a first-year pharmacy student at the University of Kansas. One of the first lessons of her first semester focused on vaccines — their history, how to counsel recipients, how to screen out those who should not get one, and more importantly, how to actually administer the vaccine.
Through an internship with pharmacy giant CVS, Rico has been tasked with vaccinating people across Kansas. To date, she’s logged trips to Seneca, Junction City, Osage City and, of course, Atchison, where she spent a long day visiting with and vaccinating the Sisters.
“Everyone was so appreciative and relieved that we were there,” Rico said. “There was a lot of emotion. The Sisters haven’t left the Mount since March. This was a light at the end of a tunnel that will soon allow them to see family and attend Mass regularly.”
As a high school student studying the Catholic faith, Rico was familiar with the Mount and the Sisters’ work. As such, she was happy to have the opportunity to be on-site to deliver the much anticipated vaccinations.
“I felt lucky to be able to help out,” Rico said. “I didn’t expect that, at 21 years old, I would be responding to the needs of a pandemic. It’s great to see the Sisters have hope after a long year.”
In all, Rico spent 10 hours at the Mount that day. In addition to delivering the shot in the arm, each person has to be monitored for 15 minutes after receiving the vaccine to watch for an allergic reaction. Rico will return on Jan. 29 to administer the second dose.
Not surprisingly, jubilation dominated the emotions that day. The Sisters have been extremely cautious, wearing masks, quarantining — sometimes even within the convent — and shuttering their ministries for the duration.
Several times, the Sisters had to quarantine for two weeks at a time for a potential exposure to COVID-19. Three of the Sisters contracted the virus. Fortunately, they experienced only mild symptoms, Sister Esther said.
Even more important than protecting their health, however, the vaccine opens the door to freedom, Sister Esther said. The Mount must still follow county health advisories and CDC guidance.
However, Sister Esther said they hope to soon rejoin the residents of the Mount and Dooley Center for prayer and Mass. Not one of the Sisters feared the vaccine or a reaction, she said.
“There was no fear, only grins, delight and chatter,” Sister Esther said. “One of the Sisters sent me a funny email after she was vaccinated, and she told me she had been shot.”
While the pandemic is long from over, Sister Esther credits the laypeople who have also played an important role in keeping the Sisters safe from widespread transmission of the virus.
“We have been blessed with employees who worked very hard on staying safe so that we would be safe,” she said. “We couldn’t do any of this without them.”