Savannah Littleton Willis
Interviewed January 19, 2020. Interview edited for clarity and length.
Savannah, 33, is a “lifer” at PRUMC, as was her father, Buddy Littleton, who died last year after developing COVID-19 complications [*referred to as COVID below]. She’s married to Ed Willis and has a nine-month old daughter, Kayla. As a Registered Nurse in Emergency at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, a new mom who was pregnant and gave birth during the pandemic, a bereaved daughter who experienced COVID as a family member on the other side of the dividing wall, and a very recent recipient of the COVID vaccine, she has a perspective on our times that few of us can know. We spoke with her to learn more about her experience.
Thank you so much for the work you’re doing under such challenging circumstances. We can’t begin to imagine how this overwhelming time has affected you. Looking purely at your profession first, has COVID changed how you feel about being a nurse?
It was very scary. Being pregnant was the hardest. Your baby’s not in the world where you can see if something’s wrong. But I also didn’t want to take maternity leave early because of the virus and have to come back to work when she would be even younger. Then you’ve got to worry about what you’re bringing home to an 8-week-old versus a 12-week-old. I definitely prayed a lot. I’m doing so much to prevent the virus from getting to her. Lysoling everything. Constant showers. And let me tell you, taking a shower before you can pick up your child is torture. But I always wanted to be a nurse since I was little, and I’ve never felt more called than I do now.
Savannah recently received her two vaccine shots and shared the experience/side effects on Facebook. With the first shot she experienced some soreness in her arm and a mild headache, but was fine within a couple of days. After the second shot she experienced a more flowing wave of side effects over 72 hours and was then back to normal. She described these effects – arm soreness, fatigue, mild stomach disturbance, dull headache, mild back pain, chills and sweats, and interrupted sleep – in detail so that people could manage expectations.
As she summed it up: “Though it may have had side effects, for me, they were so mild and nothing compared to the symptoms I know family and friends have had when battling COVID and even since they have ‘recovered’.” With so many of us hoping to receive the vaccine soon and others who may be feeling nervous about it, we wanted to know more about her experience.
You’ve now had both vaccine shots. Did you get those at work? Did you have any hesitation about taking them?
Yes, I got it at work, and I had concerns at first. I was so happy the vaccine was here, and I was ready to get it, but I wanted to make sure I was informed, not too eager and doing something without checking everything out. I have my own health issues, and I’m still breastfeeding. I didn’t know how that would go. And there are a lot of false rumors going around out there. I talked to my doctor, to my obstetrician, to my daughter’s pediatrician. The doctors all confirmed that it was safe and I should take it. A pediatrician I used to work with in our ER reiterated to me that mRNA vaccines [the same vaccine technology as COVID shots] have been studied in the medical world for over 20 years prior to this – this isn’t a “new” thing that’s been rushed. It was all very encouraging. So I went for it, and I’m glad. As I’ve said, any side effects I had were temporary and so much less than the effects I’ve seen of COVID.
You lost your dad to COVID last year. Is that something you feel able to talk about in the context of everything you’ve experienced since this pandemic began?
Yes. [Savannah speaks with great emotion about this.] The ramifications afterward were what his body succumbed to. That’s the part that everybody doesn’t think about. I see a lot of people worrying about the long-term effects of the vaccine. Well, we don’t know what those are, but we do know that there are long-term effects of COVID. I have perfectly healthy friends who contracted COVID and are still struggling months later. One of them now has heart arrhythmias and is wearing a monitor for the next six months.
My dad passed from long-term effects. The virus had been gone for two or three weeks, and then he began having a lot of symptoms. It just happened so fast. He was supposed to be coming home from the hospital on Friday. Saturday he was still good. Sunday night he was on a ventilator. They brought him off of it on Tuesday and then he went right back on. And he passed on Wednesday morning.
If at any point getting a vaccine makes it where people don’t have to die alone….[Savannah’s voice breaks here, and she pauses.] Look, we can’t stop people from dying. You’re going to have things that take people out unfairly. But having to deny people their family members being with them and putting it on nurses to help people say goodbye over a Zoom call – that is not fair to nurses, doctors, families, or the person who’s dying. It’s been five months now, and our family hasn’t been able to have closure. We didn’t get to be with him. You never think about how important it is to be able to sit with someone as they go. To now watch my mother go through all of this is so hard. We constantly feel like this isn’t real because we watched it on a Zoom call. And a funeral is huge to me, because my dad had talked about how important it was to him. We didn’t get that. We had a small service to lay him to rest in the columbarium. He deserved more than that. He was a well-loved man who loved people. He always talked about how he wanted a big party with his funeral. He deserved more than this.
How have you managed to come to terms with all of this? What should we be learning?
My biggest mind game from everything in 2020 – the pandemic, the election, having a baby, losing a parent, having my whole field change and feeling so needed and being able to excel in my career – is that this was the worst and best year of my life. We all need to try to get back some perspective. I was raised to see that not everybody was going to think like me and feel like me and look like me, and that’s what made this world so beautiful. That’s how God intended all of that. I want people to be able to get back to seeing that just because somebody doesn’t agree with you doesn’t mean that they’re wrong or you’re wrong. We need to accept people if we’re going to understand where we need to go. We need open discussion about the vaccine: “Why are you hesitant to get it, and can I help you with that or are you able to figure it out on your own?” Bigger than that, we need to ask, “Why are you hurting?”
With the vaccine, I feel like there is a light. We’re in a long tunnel, but there’s a light. These people who want to scare, they’re not trying to come up with another solution. They think there’s power in fear. But there’s power in knowledge. If more people would speak to their doctor, to a true medical professional who took an oath, that doctor will help you know whether you should get the vaccine now or you should wait. Listen to those people and not the ones who just want to divide everybody and keep this turmoil going. I’m so ready to get the vaccine out there to see if we can calm this down so we can have funerals, have weddings, have baptisms. So that we can have birth experiences like they’re supposed to be, not like mine was. So that we can hold someone’s hand when they go.
I want people to get back to understanding that while everybody has a right to feel and think a certain way, we need to come together and think about what’s best for everyone. When this vaccine comes out wide and everybody can get it, people choosing not to get it will put everybody who cannot take it at risk. I’m talking about people with cancer and compromised immune systems and so forth. We need to protect those people. It also may be a long time before kids can have the vaccine. So adults taking it will protect kids as long as we can.
I’m done fighting about different beliefs. I want to fight to get people back together and healthy. I want my child to know people outside our bubble. People not in masks. The first time Kayla saw somebody outside our family without a mask on, she cried. I was voting, and she saw the other half of a face. I pulled my mask down and smiled at Kayla, and she began smiling at everybody. All children see is their mom and dad without a mask on. They’re missing all of the social cues. I don’t want her to grow up in a world where she has to be so fearful of things. I want her to feel like she can trust and just be her beautiful self. And love her neighbor.