It was early January and Emily Johnson was in a panic. She frantically called public health lines and scoured the Web, seeking a coveted coronavirus vaccine appointment. No luck.
But the slow vaccine rollout in Texas made it seemingly impossible for Johnson to get inoculated — even though she’s over 65 and has a serious health condition.
Desperate, she posted on the neighborhood networking site Nextdoor, hoping someone might know something she didn’t.
“Hello Neighbors! I am a 68-yr-old female facing open heart surgery,” Johnson wrote on Jan. 7, in a group covering southwest Austin. She explained her dilemma.
“My doctors here in Austin have no access to the vaccine, so I have been spending up to an hour each morning, putting my name on lists and making dozens of phone calls,” she wrote.
“Has anyone out there heard anything or have a suggestion to make?”
More than 100 people commented and offered advice, but unfortunately, “they were all things I had already looked into,” said Johnson, who went to bed that night feeling defeated.
The next morning, though, a private message suddenly appeared in her inbox. It was an offer from a total stranger.
“I am scheduled for the vaccine this morning at 10:45am,” wrote Christy Lewis, who saw Johnson’s post on Nextdoor. “You need this much more than I do. If you can make this appointment, it’s yours. Please call me to arrange.”
She left her cellphone number, and within seconds, Johnson called.
Lewis, 50, has an autoimmune disease, and upon consulting with a doctor, she was deemed eligible to book an appointment to get the vaccine. Though her condition categorizes her as high-risk, Johnson’s situation, Lewis said, is far more urgent.
“She needed it, and I wanted to give it to her,” said Lewis, who at the time did not know when or if she would be able to reschedule her own appointment.
But when she saw Johnson’s post, “there was no question in my mind. You just know when it feels right, and this felt right to me,” she said.
Lewis could empathize with Johnson’s plight.
“I’ve had people in my family who have gone through health issues, and that, in and of itself, is very stressful. She has a very long road ahead of her. I just knew that if I could be helpful to her, I wanted to be,” Lewis said.
Upon receiving the message from Lewis, Johnson was “completely stunned,” she recalled.
“I gasped. I was just so excited,” Johnson said.
After the two women spoke briefly on the phone, Lewis called the clinic to ensure another patient was allowed to take her appointment and learned swapping was not permitted. Despite Lewis’s pleading, the worker on the other end of the line said the clinic wouldn’t do it.
But Lewis refused to give up. In fact, she crafted a backup plan. She called Johnson and proposed they visit the clinic together, since “it would be a lot harder for them to say no to a person standing in front of them,” she said.
“If she was willing to go down there, I certainly was,” Lewis added. “If you can get in front of someone and talk to them and appeal to their humanity, it is so much easier to get a ‘yes’ out of someone.”
Of course, Johnson was prepared to try anything at that point, even if it meant racing downtown despite the likelihood of being rejected.
“I was mostly amazed that Christy was willing to do it. She was the one who insisted we meet down there,” said Johnson, a recently retired teacher. “She went above and beyond.”
The two women, who had never met previously, gathered nervously outside the doctor’s office, ready to present their unusual plea.
They entered the waiting room and the receptionist said, “You must be here for your vaccine,” Johnson recalled.
“Yes, but I’m going to give it to her,” Lewis responded, motioning to Johnson.
Once again, they were met with repeated rejection, until the receptionist called her supervisor, who ultimately gave the go-ahead to vaccinate Johnson rather than Lewis.
To their surprise — and Johnson’s overwhelming relief — the plan worked, and they were even able to schedule her second shot.
Johnson, who has suffered from severe aortic valve regurgitation since 2003, has now received both vaccinations. With a renewed sense of relief, she felt ready for her open-heart surgery, which was pushed back to March.
Although Johnson had struggled with the condition for 17 years, in December, her symptoms — including fatigue and shortness of breath — started worsening, and after some tests, her cardiologist confirmed she needed surgery. The cardiologist advised she get the procedure within about two months.
“That’s when I went into panic mode,” said Johnson, adding that she booked the surgery at the Cleveland Clinic, which is known for its heart center.
Given that she would be traveling by plane and staying in another state for more than two weeks, “I didn’t want to go without being vaccinated,” Johnson said.
If not for Lewis’s unexpected offer, Johnson said she doesn’t know how, or if, she would have managed to secure a vaccine appointment before the surgery.
“I’m very grateful for her,” said Johnson, who called Lewis after her second vaccination on Feb. 5 to thank her again. “I really wish I could give her a hug.”
Lewis said the compassion others have shown her during health-related challenges in her own family propelled her to help Johnson.
“I have a son who is quadriplegic, and we’ve been the recipients of numerous acts of generosity from other people,” she explained. “It’s a good feeling to be able to pay it forward.”
Lewis was finally able to reschedule her own vaccine appointment for Feb. 16, and although it was canceled because of the Texas storm, she expects to receive her first dose in the coming weeks.
Lewis plans to stay in touch with Johnson and said she looks “forward to following up with her when she gets back from Cleveland to make sure she has the support she needs.”
While Johnson is comforted to now be protected against the coronavirus, the shot also served as a different kind of salve: Her faith in humanity, she said, has been restored.
“I still cannot believe a total stranger would do something like that for me,” Johnson said. “There are truly wonderful people in our midst.”
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