A sigh of relief
Like so many people with serious health conditions, Joel McLaughlin lived in fear of contracting COVID-19. Yet, he was also terrified of what it would take to properly protect himself – the vaccine.
At 17, Joel has spent a lifetime in and out of hospital battling asthma, pneumonia and numerous allergies so serious that a mere touch could trigger a dangerous reaction. Dairy, eggs, tree nuts, peanuts, grass, trees, dog cats – the list of allergies is long. The Corunna teen carries three EpiPens with him at all times, and mom Carrie has had to administer the injection 13 times over the years.
"He wanted to get the shot but it had to be done carefully and safely."
As a youngster, Joel had a severe reaction to a flu shot and, two years ago, he landed in hospital with an allergic reaction to a virus. The actual source of both reactions has not been determined.
“So when it came to COVID, we couldn’t take any chances,” said Carrie. “We went into lockdown. With Joel’s asthma and a possible allergic reaction to the virus itself, we couldn’t risk it.”
For his safety, Joel, as well as his two brothers, stopped attending school in March 2020 and didn’t return for the rest of the school year. But when the vaccine became available, new fears arose.
“We don’t take chances when it comes to any kind of shot,” says Carrie. “And yet we knew the COVID-19 vaccine was essential for Joel. He wanted to get the shot but it had to be done carefully and safely.”
The Allergy Clinic at St. Joseph’s Hospital has answered that call – for Joel and many others. For patients with potential allergies to the COVID-19 vaccine, the clinic is one of few in the province seeing patients who require consultation with a clinical allergist/immunologist.
“We are giving injections to patients who may be allergic to a component of the vaccine or have reacted to the first vaccine dosing,” explains Dr. Harold Kim, Medical Director of St. Joseph’s Allergy and Immunology Program and Chair/Chief, Clinical Immunology and Allergy in London. “Anyone with a suspected allergy to the vaccine is assessed to decide whether we would give it in our clinic or if they can receive it in a normal vaccination clinic.”
At St. Joseph’s, patients receive the COVID-19 vaccine in small and gradually larger doses over a period of time and are monitored closely for signs of reaction. By the end of their visit, they will have received the full dose.
In December 2020, Toni Ritchie, 58, had a severe anaphylactic reaction to an antibiotic but it was unclear which ingredient caused it. It was the first such episode she had experienced and there was a chance it may have been triggered by a non-medicinal component that is also present in the mRNA COVID vaccines. It was determined that Toni was a good candidate for the clinic at St. Joseph’s.
"This clinic is a game changer."
“If there was a chance I would crash again, I wanted to do it in a hospital where there was full medical support and a thoughtful, challenge-based protocol in place to minimize the risk.”
For Toni, who must keep on top of her asthma and has had autoimmune irregularities, vaccination to protect against COVID was vital. On July 7, she received the first dose of the Moderna vaccine in four separate amounts during which her oxygen levels, blood pressure and other indicators were monitored. She had no reaction and it was determined she could safety receive her second dose in her community. It too was uneventful.
“I think it’s a sensational initiative,” says Toni of the clinic. “There are a lot of people with allergy concerns who are holding back on getting the COVID-vaccine and they may not need to hold back. This clinic is a game changer.”
Dr. Kim agrees. Without the clinic’s cautious approach, many patients would not be getting the vaccine due to fear of a reaction, he says. “We have also likely prevented severe reactions with the protocol used at our clinic.”
Joel also received the first dose of the vaccine in segments at St. Joseph’s without any issue. He received his second dose in one shot at the clinic on Aug. 4 and now looks forward to resuming a more normal life – attending school, playing hockey and getting a part time job. “It’s a big sigh of relief for me,” says Joel about being able to safely receive the vaccine. “It has been scary thinking about what the outcome would be if I got COVID and if I could never receive the vaccine.”
The clinic has been equally a positive experience for staff, says nurse Christina Attard-Kennel.
“Many of us were redeployed to assessment centres at the start of COVID and we talked about the hope for a vaccine. We are now part of helping patients receive it and are seeing the burden of the pandemic lifting. We have come full circle. It’s very satisfying.”