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Why I Volunteered: Inspiring Stories of COVID-19 Vaccine Trial Participants

Older adults from all walks of life share their motivations for signing up to help humanity

spinner image covid vaccine clinical trial participants clockwise from top left are bonnie blue deepak sarma barry colvin freeman and jackie habrowski eduardo rollox and judy stokes
Courtesy Bonnie Blue, Deepak Sarma, Barry Colvin, Freeman Hrabowski, Eduardo Rollox, Judy Stokes

As researchers race to develop vaccines to combat the spread of the coronavirus, thousands of people around the country have been offering their bodies to science. These health heroes have volunteered to be participants in clinical trials of COVID-19 vaccines that are currently in development. Because these are blind studies, the participants don't know whether they are getting the real vaccine or a placebo. These volunteers come from various walks of life and express a variety of reasons for becoming involved. Common to all, however, is a desire to put an end to this pandemic.

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What follows is a series of snapshots of people over age 50 who are participating in these trials and what their personal motivation is for doing so. Their inspiring stories, told in their own words, have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Bonnie Blue, 68, is an author, mother of four, and a great-grandmother in Chicago.

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Because of severe asthma, I'd been fighting to exist my whole life. I'd been in and out of hospitals, ICUs, and on life support 13 times. I wouldn't want anyone else to go through what I've gone through — if I can help people avoid that, I want to do my part.

Like most African Americans, I wasn't very trusting of the medical community. My friends and I discussed waiting a few years to see if the vaccine was safe or not. But I saw that the numbers of infections and deaths kept going up, and for every death I know there's a family that loved that person. It breaks my heart when I hear about people not being able to be with their COVID-stricken loved ones as they're dying and to see children being orphaned from this.

So I started doing research and heard about the clinical trial at the University of Illinois at Chicago. I had not volunteered for a clinical trial before and my loved ones tried to talk me out of it. I'm a praying woman and I asked for a sign of whether or not I should volunteer for this. I didn't get a sign that I shouldn't do it so I signed up. I got the first injection in late August and the second in late September.

I wanted to do my part for humanity because this microorganism we can't see is destroying mankind. This is the point in history where we can come together to help each other survive; we're in this together. This is just my small contribution so that we can all live and be well.

Deepak Sarma, 51, is a professor of religious studies and bioethics at Case Western University in Cleveland and a father of two.

spinner image portrait of deepak sarma

My wife is a primary care physician, and I had seen her worrying about the virus. When I heard about the opportunity to enroll in a phase III clinical trial, I thought, Wow! I can do something. I'm a healthy South-Asian American — my parents are from India — and I don't have any preexisting conditions. Not only did enrolling in the study satisfy my altruistic goals, but it also coincides with my Hindu beliefs.

There's a tradition in Hinduism of gift giving — in this case, the gift is offering my body for an experiment. It felt like the right thing to do because people are suffering during this global health crisis. I also knew that with clinical trials, statistics and data for minorities are low — so this was part of my calculation in the sense that brown and Black lives do matter and the data that my participation would generate would provide lifesaving knowledge regarding underrepresented people.

I had the first injection on Aug. 10 and the second on Sept. 9. After the first one, I felt tired and run down that evening; the day after the second injection, I had a fever and felt extremely fatigued and disoriented for several hours. I taught an online class that morning and for the first 45 minutes I don't even know what I said. But I was back to normal by late that afternoon. Because of my response, I'm pretty sure I got the experimental vaccine and not the placebo. My wife volunteered for the vaccine, too.

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With this virus, the challenge for all of humanity is enormous. I'm just one small person in this, but by participating in the trial I hope I'm contributing to the continuation of humanity.

Judy Stokes, 69, is a retired health care writer in Sacramento, California, and a mother of four adult sons.

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My interest in volunteering started when my youngest son Ian decided to join a phase I trial, which looks at the vaccine's safety. He lives and works in Seattle and has a degree in molecular biology, so he understands this mRNA approach to creating a vaccine [that introduces a genetic code the body can use to make its own viral protein to induce an immune response]. Scientifically, it's an important step for many reasons. When I found out a phase III site was in Sacramento, it just seemed like such a coincidence that this opportunity was right in front of me!

But as I considered joining, half of me was saying, Oh, you don't want to get involved in this! And the other half was telling me to do it. I was tired of being fearful and ineffectual during the pandemic. Volunteering was a positive step I could take, something I could do to hopefully move the vaccine development experience along.

At first, I thought I might not be a good candidate because of my age and because I have heart disease and high blood pressure. But I learned they wanted to include a diverse set of people for phase III. I got the two shots at the beginning and end of August. I had a minor reaction to the second injection — I was exhausted and had muscle aches all over my body for two days. But I won't know until the end of the trial if I got the vaccine or the placebo.

This experience has given me a real appreciation of science and how medicine moves carefully to make sure it works safely and effectively. I'm glad I entered the trial. I haven't seen my only grandchild, Lola, in person this entire year. I've missed a year of her life. Creating an effective vaccine can help us all return to the things we value.

Eduardo Rollox, 55, was born in Panama and works for the U.S. Department of State. He lives in Evanston, Illinois.

spinner image eduardo rollox takes a selfie inside a doctor exam room

Over the summer, I saw a TV interview with one of the polio-vaccine volunteers, and he recounted his experience with receiving the vaccine. He was encouraging people to participate in the COVID vaccine trials that were coming up. A few weeks later, I saw a news report about a local trial, and I called and offered to volunteer.

I'm in a high-risk group for serious complications if I get COVID because I have three preexisting conditions; I want to be able to live to see another day. I also took the vaccine to protect my mom, who is in her 70s and has heart failure and problems with her lungs — she absolutely can't get COVID.

Some family members and friends tried to talk me out of volunteering, so I had a discussion with my personal physician, whom I've been seeing for more than 30 years. He's an infectious disease specialist, and in the end his opinion was the only one that really mattered. If he had said, No, don't do it — I wouldn't have done it. But he was in favor of it.

I got the first vaccine at the end of August and the booster shot at the end of September. The second shot really packed a punch — I ended up with a fever, chills and a headache. But I'd rather put up with a few days of discomfort rather than being in the hospital with COVID.

Another thing that inspired me is the mRNA vaccine is a brand-new 21st century technology that has never been used before. Also, mRNA has potential uses beyond COVID — for cancer treatments and cardiac problems. I wanted to be part of the history-making process on this.

Freeman A. Hrabowski, III, 70, is a mathematician and president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC). His wife, Jackie, 73, is a former vice president of T. Rowe Price and a philanthropist. They have an adult son and a grandson, and recently celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary.

spinner image freeman and jackie habrowski

Freeman: UMBC alumna Kizzmekia Corbett, the lead NIH scientist involved in the development of a COVID vaccine, had been telling me they were having trouble getting Blacks in the trial because of lack of trust. We were inspired by the fact that she's making history — with the vaccine and as a woman and a person of color — and doing things to help the public. So we volunteered for a phase III clinical trial at the University of Maryland School of Medicine Center for Vaccine Development and received the two injections 28 days apart in September and October.

Jackie: The fact that we know this young woman gave us a level of inspiration and trust. When you hear about people who are impacted by COVID, African Americans are a disproportionately large group. I wanted to do what I can to help and I wanted to serve as a role model to suggest that others might believe in this.

Freeman: Our participation has inspired some of our friends to trust the science, despite the deep-seated history of racism in science and history in our country, from the Tuskegee syphilis study to other experiences. It helps people to hear that we understand the why behind the lack of trust, but we also believe in science and medicine. Building greater representation of Blacks and older people in the process is part of the solution.

Jackie: The older we get and the more successful we are, the more humble we become. We are extraordinarily privileged, and we consider ourselves very healthy. So many of our very dear friends have gotten sick and died. Throughout our lives we have had a personal conviction that if we can make a difference, we will — because if not us, who will?

Barry Colvin, 52, is a retired investment manager who lives with his wife in White Plains, New York.

I'm not a health care worker or an essential worker, so I can't contribute in that way. But once the vaccine trials were underway and I started reading about the way the vaccines work, I was especially struck by the mRNA technique.

I wanted to volunteer to try to expedite these efforts, especially in this era where people are nervous about vaccines and just about everything. I'm a healthy adult without underlying risk factors — this was a way I could join the fight.

In May, when I realized that phase I trials were being done at NYU Langone Health, I volunteered. I wasn't chosen for that but I was invited to participate in the phase III trial. I received my first dose in late July and the second three weeks later. I don't know whether I received the vaccine or the placebo and probably won't until next year; I felt fine after both shots. But it really doesn't matter: The efficacy data is not possible without the placebo group, so regardless I'm still a part of the fight.

I'm not someone who would go out and champion for others to volunteer. It has to be a personal decision. My confidence in the process and the professionalism, certainly in the group at NYU Langone, has only strengthened during this experience. I was excited to participate in finding a way to prevent people from getting sick with this virus and getting our lives back to some level of normalcy.

To me, the most tragic thing about COVID is the isolation for those who are at highest risk, especially the elderly, and the mental health concerns that go with that. The more quickly we can find and distribute one or more effective vaccines, the faster we can rejoin those social bonds that are so crucial to us all.

Watch: Volunteering for the COVID-19 Vaccine Trials

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