Featured Voices: Columbia Cancer Volunteers in COVID-19 Vaccination Effort

February 2, 2021

In January, NewYork-Presbyterian and Columbia University Irving Medical Center (CUIMC) put out a call for clinical and non-clinical volunteers to assist with the COVID-19 vaccination rollout to patients at the Armory located at the CUIMC campus. More than 1600 employees from across Columbia signed up to volunteer to help with this massive undertaking, including physicians, researchers, and staff from the Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center (HICCC). Here are a few HICCC COVID-19 vaccination volunteers sharing their experience pitching in during this unprecedented time. We salute them!

Emer Smyth and Tanisha Jackson stand together in masks at the Armory COVID-19 vaccination site

Tanisha Jackson, PhD, senior research program manager at the HICCC

As an immunologist, Columbia employee, and Washington Heights resident, it is important for me to contribute to causes that I care about—my community and science. I was also personally motivated to assist during this time. Early in the pandemic, I lost a cousin to COVID-19, and my sister, who is an educator, recently recovered from COVID-19.

I served as a volunteer patient navigator, escorting patients through the Armory on their way to and after receiving the vaccination, helping patients with limited mobility, and making sure they were scheduled for their second vaccination before leaving. It was rewarding to help seniors regain some sense of security and make the vaccination experience as comfortable as possible for them. I also met new NewYork-Presbyterian and Columbia colleagues and have bonded with them during this experience.

The vaccine drive at the Armory was the largest number of people I have been around since March 2020; the human connection actually fueled me during the long shifts. Overall, it was a heartwarming volunteer experience.

Jordan Orange, MD, stands in protective gear at the Armory COVID-19 vaccination site
Jordan Orange, MD, chair of pediatrics, administered COVID-19 vaccinations at the Armory.

Jordan Orange, MD, chair of the Department of Pediatrics at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians & Surgeons and member of the HICCC

This is a monumental opportunity to protect our community and bring hope where there has been containment, isolation, and despair. It is an “all hands on deck” initiative and we owe it to New York City to move as fast as we can. Healthcare systems are all stretched thin now so it is fundamental that we all chip in to do our part. I should add that pediatricians are really good at giving vaccines (and have had a lot of practice), so it was nice also to connect to that part of my own identity.

I served as a vaccinator and gave several dozen vaccines. I asked and answered questions and logged vaccines. I honestly experienced so many tears of joy during this experience—both from community members and from myself. The thought of safety, freedoms, and life ahead after this truly existential challenge was a visible relief and almost cathartic moment. When one individual said to me, “I only want to be able to hug my granddaughter again,” what can one do but join in tears of hope and joy?

There was a palpable positivity and optimism at the Armory. The site ran so smoothly, orderly, and efficiently. I was able to focus on giving vaccines and conveying information and answering questions. I also was able to use the video interpreter cart to interact and communicate with numerous Spanish-speaking residents of our neighborhood, and they expressed gratitude for the technology and for having their concerns and questions addressed. I cannot think of anything more important to be doing than this. I started my shift at 5:30 a.m., and honestly, it energized me for the entire day, and I am still drawing inspiration from the experience.

Emer Smyth, PhD, associate director for administration at the HICCC and assistant professor of pathology and cell biology at Columbia Vagelos College of Physicians & Surgeons

When the call for volunteers at the NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia vaccination site at the Armory came out, I jumped at the opportunity. After almost a year in which doing my part during the pandemic meant staying at home and out of the way of the frontliners, I was thrilled to be able to do something more.

The Armory is bustling, filled with volunteers and patients – almost all of whom are elderly – working together (with strict social distancing and masking) to get shots into arms. My small part directing people to the right place, checking they completed the post-observation period, and  texting the pharmacist when the vaccinator needed more doses, has been so rewarding. Smiles are hidden by masks, but eyes reveal everything – relief, joy, hope.

As a scientist myself who spent 20 years in laboratory research, it is also a thrill to see the rapid application of science into public good and to witness the awesome power of research in solving problems in human health. We live in an extraordinary time of possibilities.

HICCC Featured Voices gives our patients, members, and supporters an opportunity to share their personal stories. If you have a story to share and want to be included as a featured voice, please email the HICCC Communications team at cucancercomms@cumc.columbia.edu.