The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Videos of vaccine deliveries are making people burst into tears

The vaccine shots were administered on Dec. 14 across the country, a sign of hope amid a pandemic that has killed more than 300,000 people nationwide. (Video: The Washington Post)
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On Sunday morning, Alex Leyton, 50, awoke in her San Francisco home, scrolled through some news on her phone and landed on a short video clip of trucks loaded with the coronavirus vaccine leaving a Pfizer facility in Michigan.

“I started bawling,” she says. “You know how they say ‘ugly crying’? I physically could not stop.” She’d kept it together for nine months. Now, “all that I’ve been holding in and trying to control just flooded out.”

She surprised herself with the reaction. Leyton is not the type to get emotional.

“It’s just some trucks, you know? . . . It’s the most boring video in the universe,” Leyton says. “God, I’m going to start crying again.”

Just some trucks. Just some cargo. A beginning and an ending, folded together in a refrigerated box. In the spring, Americans nursed their hope for human resilience on videos of New Yorkers cheering hospital workers from balconies. As the country hunkers down for a dark winter, the vaccine shipment video offered hope that we might not have to be resilient for much longer.

The trucks pulled out of the lot slowly, almost cinematically. One half expected a swell of string music. By Monday morning one of those shipments had arrived at New York’s Long Island Jewish Medical Center, where a dose was delivered into the left arm of Sandra Lindsay, a critical-care nurse.

In Waterville, Maine, Gail Carlson, 54, watched Lindsay get the injection on television.

“I started thinking about the person in the chair who was receiving the vaccine, who clearly was a front-line health worker, was a person of color. I literally burst into tears,” Carlson says. “I’m practically bursting into tears right now, thinking about it.”

They weren’t tears of joy or relief, though.

“It was really an overwhelming feeling of trauma,” says Carlson. “For just the ways that our lives have changed, and that’s sort of the less visible form of trauma.”

Some therapists use a metaphor of a beach ball to explain what happens when we repress emotions. When you hold a beach ball underwater, it’s so buoyant that you have to have a firm grip to keep it beneath the surface. But once you lose your grip, it will shoot out of the pool with great force.

Those vaccine videos? Well, it seems like they just made a bunch of people let go of their beach balls.

“It was a more intense feeling than I had really felt prepared for,” says Jessica Hessler, 34, a public health consultant in Pittsburgh. She had been following the vaccine’s trajectory for months. “All of a sudden it just felt very real.”

All of the plans that have been on hold since before the virus spread — weddings, vacations, long-overdue grandparent visits — started to feel a little more real, too.

“It’s the first time you’re seeing in action that thing everyone vaguely talked about hoping for,” says Natali Ryzhikova, a 29-year-old social media manager who lives in Boston. “Like, I honestly had reached a point where I thought that this might never end.”

Ryzhikova, who is from Florida, cried while watching a video of a nurse at Tampa General Hospital receiving the vaccine. She was riveted by a TikTok of a British man describing what it was like to get the injection. She’s been fantasizing about a post-vaccine trip to visit her family, whom she hasn’t seen since last January.

“I just realized how much I love my family and need them,” she says. “I’m hopefully going to quite literally live through this, and past this, and see the end of it and come out of it more respectful of what I have.”

Even doctors got emotional.

Moderna’s chief medical officer said he choked up when he reviewed data about the efficacy of the vaccine. “It was the first time I allowed myself to cry,” Tal Zaks told CNN.

“I’m an ER doc, so I’m pretty stoic by definition,” says Jakub Bartnik, a physician at St. Barnabas Hospital in the Bronx, one of the areas that was hit the hardest by the pandemic’s first wave.

“I think we have bottled up almost, like, a PTSD from this. And, you know, there’s outlets that are provided to us,” Bartnik says. Nevertheless, “I think some of those emotions just come out at times you wouldn’t expect, and I never thought I’d get emotional over some trucks leaving a parking lot, but it happened.”

He shed what he first classified as “a few tears,” and then later clarified: “My machismo likely tried to downplay [it] a bit, but it was definitely a release and a short sudden sob, not just some tears.” He expects that he will be vaccinated by the end of this week.

It will be much longer than that for Michael Grey, 43, a human resources professional in Minneapolis. Watching the footage of Lindsay getting the vaccine in New York, he says, “I just started crying because it felt like, okay, I know that it’s not going to happen for me or my family tomorrow, but it’s going to happen. It’s going to happen sometime next year. And I just get that feeling of hope that we can turn a new chapter.”

The crying was cathartic. “It’s not something that, you know, typically, like, gender-wise, men talk about a lot,” he says. “But there’s nothing to be ashamed of.”

And it won’t be the last time. “I’ll probably be that crying person getting the vaccination,” Grey says.

“But that’s okay. I think there will be a lot of us.”