• Ava Hoffman

Other Voices

I’m not sure quite where to start on this one…and I truly hate to begin this way; however, I find myself needing to preface this piece with a few different things.


First, I want to extend a CONTENT WARNING: US Medical News. Pandemic. Mental Health. Ableism. If you find yourself fatigued, drained, unable to absorb or see information related to the pandemic, please stop here. This piece is not worth exhausting your capacity completely. Your mental wellbeing comes first.


Second, people and perspectives are not one and the same. While we are free to disagree, differ, and quarrel over beliefs, lifestyles, and opinions, people should still be afforded the dignity and respect that each human being has been endowed with. If you cannot separate those two things, continuing may upset you.


Third, this piece is about the COVID-19 vaccine. From the point of view of an immunocompromised at-risk individual. Please do your best to check your privilege and walk through this piece with an open mind, ready to learn.


Lastly, if you are reading this as an immunocompromised or at-risk person, pause here. Recognize there are levels of privilege inside those labels. If you are a healthy immunocompromised person, you, too, have privilege. Please do the work and check your bias before reading this piece.

This whole thing starts with the definition of conversation . What it is. What it isn’t. I find it important to make sure we start on the same page with this word…it seems to mean forcing your opinion on others lately. Defensively arguing and fighting for positions we don’t completely understand. It seems to be rooted in a reactive cycle of accusation, blame, shame, and censoring all non-conforming thoughts.


This is not conversation. Conversation is the interchange of thoughts and information. Talking. Exchanging ideas or opinions, knowing they may not align. Dialogue. It is an interactive give-and-take. Actively listening. Pursuing an understanding of the other view, perspective, and person. It is intentional interactions, chats fostering relationship. Slow to speak. Quick to hear.


This entire piece is the result of a conversation that did not happen. That lack of discussion opened my eyes to an absent discourse, a missing voice among those clamoring to be heard in the vaccination debate.


It started last September when I went to see my pharmacist, John, for my annual flu shot. I had my first COVID-19 vaccine talk with him. John has received experimental vaccines in the past as a precaution to other novel viruses while working in a hospital setting. He saw them work. He has the utmost confidence in this one.


As I began to research and follow the vaccine’s development, my red flags relentlessly remained. I accumulated more questions than answers. Since most of them were related to my Crohn’s Disease, I turned to my IBD peers.


I deeply desired to share my concerns in the company of people who had a similar background, experience, and story. I sought a safe space to express my apprehension and flush out my thoughts. I needed to know others were wondering, nervous, weighing options responsibly, and feeling the weight of the decision. I was exhausted from social media and drained from filtering through the vaccine propaganda of both sides. I turned to this community in my uncertainty.


My questions and thoughts were thrown back in my face. Ignored, belittled, and demeaned, I exited the group chat with a heavy heart.


It is precisely this response that indicates the desperate need for this conversation. That bigotry is why this conversation is important. There is more than one side. There will always be more than one perspective. The stubborn prejudice and complete intolerance directed at so many topics, including COVID vaccination, only serves to encourage conflict and increase discord.


We must be willing to engage with other viewpoints authentically, respectfully, and believing that the other [person, political party, side, person, view] has a story and their own reasoning they believe is right.

Changing the narrative to a grace-filled dialogue is vital to bridging misunderstanding. Approaching topics and people with the humble knowledge that we can be wrong builds relationship. We are able to meet people where they are at and that is powerful.

I have been a huge proponent of vaccination my entire life. As a person of the immunocompromised variety, myself and my entire family receive influenza shots each year. Ask any of my high school English teachers and they will laugh, rolling their eyes in memory of the numerous and the endless drafts of research papers, persuasive essays, objective expository papers, and journalistic articles all having to do with vaccination in one way or another. In college, I lived and worked in the resident halls and every fall, I kindly requested my residents consider getting their flu shots for my safety and the safety of other at-risk individuals on the floor and in our building.


Vaccination has been my way of life for over a decade, and I truly do believe in its goodness. It is a gift. It can grant self-protection and guard our friends, neighbors, and strangers, too. For perfectly healthy folks and healthy immunocompromised folks, vaccinations can be a selfless act to safeguard the health of fellow humans. A way to step out and love the community we live in.


When I met with my gastroenterology team in early February, I asked my questions about COVID vaccination with that background and my background as a geneticist. I did not envy my doctor! The responses I received were more than enough to convince myself and my husband that the COVID-19 vaccine is not wise for me. There is more risk in the vaccine than in the virus.


I am not getting the COVID-19 vaccine.

It is very odd to decide against receiving a vaccine. It is even odder to find myself having to defend my choice. It is a decision I have not taken lightly. Clearly. A decision I made with the counsel of health experts I trust. A decision I believe is based in fact, supported by research, and best for me.


For me. That is the crux of this whole issue, isn’t it? This decision is not the one-size fits all depiction our society likes to show us, is it?

Those two little words are so critical to this discussion and often omitted from public perception. A few weeks ago, a recently vaccinated friend posted on Facebook that “if you can get vaccinated, you should.” And while I am sure it was meant as “if you are eligible according to your state’s guidelines,” I desperately hoped it was an acknowledgement of those of us who simply cannot be vaccinated.


Oh how privileged you are to sign up for a vaccination appointment with so little thought! Do you realize this?


There are so many of us being shoved into the background because we must consider not being vaccinated. Our stories prevent us from being a part of the mainstream, and our deliberations set us apart even in communities with the same disease, the so-called same immunocompromised status. Our alternate thought-processes relegate us to a realm somewhere between “radical conservative” and “vaccine-hesitant.”


We must weigh our current health status (remission, flaring, indeterminate), our medical history, the medications we are on. We think about the health of those around us and the disease we are vaccinating against. We must look at what we know about the vaccine, what the long-term may look like. And in this particular case, we must also consider what future discrimination we might face if we are not vaccinated.


Oh how privileged you are to make your decision without fear of your civil rights being trampled! Do you realize this?


I am saddened that I must guard against the outcry sure to come. Especially concerning the communities I assumed would support me regardless. Truthfully, I have hesitated to share all this for weeks. I have been apprehensive about the response. I did not have the mental capacity for the disapproval, dismissal, and disregard that would surely follow. It is time to step out, though. Time to share. Time to talk.

I deeply object to the amount of division we have let this vaccination cause. This is not worth fighting over. We should not be picking sides, avoiding unvaccinated friends and family, and refusing to attend churches that are not supporting vaccination efforts. We should not be ostracizing those in our spheres for choosing something different.


Friends, this is one of the greatest opportunities to practice community, to renounce ableism, to come alongside our neighbors. There is an opening to extend grace, practice patience, and embrace the differences that unify us in our humanity.


A vaccination status is not an identity. It should not even be a label, much less a symbol of position in society. Let me remind you what point number two was earlier: every human being has been endowed with dignity and respect. It goes so much farther than this, too. Regardless of race, religion, health status, or any other distinction we make, we each have been divinely crafted. Inspired creations. Intentionally designed. A soul with a purpose. Focus on that.


The decision to be vaccinated against COVID-19 is a personal choice. If you have not yet made your decision, let me encourage you to do your research. Glean your information from nonbiased data-based articles. Talk to your doctor. Ignore the media. Look at your own medical history. Consider those in your life who cannot receive the vaccine and the role you may be able to play in herd immunity. Come to your own conclusions. Be wise. Be cautious. Be thoughtful.

Know this space is safe for you to bring your perspective. The comment section is open for your thoughts and queries, ready to hear your voice and connect you with others. My email and DMs are waiting for you when you need them. I ask you remember to not attack people and to pursue understanding through each exchange.


It isn’t an easy decision for many of us. The assumption that we “should of course” be vaccinated simply because we are immunocompromised is incredibly dismissive of the individual story each of us walks. Encouraging vaccination to an individual pondering due to medical history or disease status tramples our experience as you display contempt for our questions, our decision-making process, our lives.


Which leads us to the simple truth. This isn’t about vaccination…it is about people. It has always been about people, and the sooner we start remembering and acting like it is people who matter, the sooner we will find ourselves with solid stone bridges and unshakeable relationships.


I beseech you to be uncomfortable. I ask that you look hard at how you have approached this topic, how you have approached those choosing opposite of your choice, how you have approached people like me. We are not ignorant "anti-vaxxing" conspiracy theorists rebelling against a government we don’t agree with – we are people. Trying to make the best decision we can with the information available. Just like you.


Start with conversation, not accusation. Choose to see the different sides. You do not have to agree…just listen. Seek to understand the choice your friends make. Be considerate of your immunocompromised friends and the position they may find themselves in. Make the decision to acknowledge your privilege and do better.


We are just like you. And the choice we make – that I make – does not change that.

Change the vaccination narrative with me, friends. Commit to having conversations. To checking your entitlement. Fighting your innate privilege. Refusing to argue and instead, focusing on asking questions that foster conversations, foster relationship. Let’s heal together.






Note: Huge thank you to the friendly strangers all over OP and Mission for having these conversations with me, taking these photos, and candidly sharing your thoughts and experiences with me. Also thank you to those who had this conversation and didn't feel comfortable with a photo - you were instrumental in this, too.

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