Saturday, December 26, 2020

A brief history of shots in the arm...

Written by Jim Heffernan for the Duluth News Tribune on December 26, 2020 

One down (Merry) and one to go (Happy) in a holiday season like no other anyone alive today can remember, but the end is in sight. We hope.


In the meantime, I’ll keep social distancing, avoiding public gatherings, wearing a mask, and I’m going to get a COVID shot as soon as I can. I suppose that either makes me a chicken or a Democrat or both in the eyes of some. I don’t care. I even think Joe Biden was elected president, for crying out loud!


Some people are resisting getting vaccine shots out of fear or suspicion. It wasn’t always that way. For decades, the vast majority of people took them for granted.


 I have an interesting history in getting shots (perhaps interesting only to me, but I’ll share it anyway), going back to my early childhood when I was trundled off to the doctor’s office for various shots recommended at the time.


I believe diphtheria — whatever that was/is — was a hot shot in those days and might have been my first — and worst — experience in the world of inoculation and vaccination, which are one and the same thing, Google reports. I always thought inoculation was when they took a long needle full of stuff, told you it wasn’t going to hurt, poked it in your arm and it hurt like crazy.


 Vaccination, I thought, was something different. That involved poking your arm (or leg as was the case for many girls who didn’t want scars on their upper arm) a whole buncha times with a little needle making a small circle of pokes. (Special scientific note: the term “whole buncha” is not part of the serious medical science lexicon, but should be.)


But back to fending off diphtheria, my first shot experience. My mother and aunt (sisters) took me and my girl cousin, very close in age, to the doctor’s office together. We were maybe four or five. At that age even the smell of a doctor’s office is foreboding. Still is, come to think of it.


So they sat the two of us down and brought out the needles, which seemed awfully long and thin and pointy. I don’t know which one of us got it first, but my girl cousin took it like a man (an expression; not intended to be sexist), and I took it like a baby. I nearly fainted and the nurse rushed me over to a window, opened it and stuck my head outside for fresh air. For the rest of our childhoods, my cousin reminded me that she bravely took the shot and I nearly fainted. It was a cross I had to bear, but not gladly.


I seemed to do better with shots as I grew a bit older. What most of them were for I can’t recall. Mumps? Measles? The poxes, chicken and small? I don’t know, but I caught mumps twice and endured two weeks of quarantine with measles too.


I was a fairly early recipient of penicillin to fight off something I had come down with. In those days, doctors made house calls, and I recall the doctor telling me to pull down my pajamas and lie on my stomach and he poked the needle where the sun doesn’t often shine. Ouch. Medical history.


Shots were not the dread they had been for me when polio vaccine came along. By then I was in my teens. I do recall how everyone was relieved that the Salk vaccine would prevent this horrible, often crippling, disease. The threat stalked every kid of my generation and those going before me, and some didn’t escape it, suffering severe physical disabilities for the rest of their lives like the second President Roosevelt.


Moving on, the military is crazy about shots, and they don’t fool around when it comes to administering them. Scares the H-E-double toothpicks out of some recruits, but I seemed to survive them fine in U.S. Army boot camp at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., an Army base actually named after a doctor.


Like so much else in life, the Army way is quite different from what civilians experience (see cooking, barbering). On shot day when I went through it they lined us up in a medical building and you walked single file between uniformed medical aides, your arms bared, and they literally shot you in both arms with medicine-containing guns that looked like ray guns. It looks ominous when you encounter it, but I didn’t think it was too bad.


Not so for a few soldiers-to-be who went through with me. A couple of them began to faint, and others expressed extreme fear. I wished I could have shown my girl cousin how brave I was. Platoon Sgt. Savage — he always lived up to his name — was not impressed.


Today, as a registered geezer, I get flu shots every year, enduring them with equanimity. Same with shingles shots — they don’t bother me much, although I prefer two shots of vodka and a little lime juice over ice when the cocktail hour rolls around. For medicinal purposes, of course.


This is my final column of 2020. Let’s all hope 2021 will be better. At least there’s reason to believe it won’t be any worse. Happy? New Year.


Jim Heffernan is a former Duluth News Tribune news and opinion writer and columnist. He can be reached at and maintains a blog at

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