Pharmacy Professor Shares Her Story of Personal Loss to Build Vaccine Confidence

Jennifer Courtney, PharmD (left), and colleagues show off the ultra-cold freezer for storing CNU College of Pharmacy's first shipment of COVID-19 vaccines.

Jennifer Courtney, PharmD (left), and colleagues show off the ultra-cold freezer for storing CNU College of Pharmacy's first shipment of COVID-19 vaccines.

In January 2021, California Northstate University (CNU) had just received its first shipment of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine. Soon, the contents of the vials would be administered to the community’s oldest and most vulnerable residents. To mark the moment, Jennifer Courtney, PharmD, an assistant professor at the CNU College of Pharmacy, and her colleagues gathered enthusiastically around the ultra-cold freezer to be photographed with the long-awaited vials.

When a text came in from Courtney’s father on her cellphone, she stepped away from the group to answer. It was bad news. Courtney’s stepmother was sick with COVID-19. A few days later, Courtney’s father had become ill, too, and over the course of the ensuing days, his symptoms worsened. Eventually, he had to be admitted to the hospital, where he was put on oxygen because he could no longer breathe on his own.

While Courtney’s stepmother recovered on her own at home, her father struggled in the hospital for a month before he passed away from multiple organ failure due to COVID-19 disease.

“He just couldn’t shake it,” Courtney said.

Newly retired, Courtney’s father had moved from Missouri to Arizona to be closer to his daughter. “We were going to be hanging out and doing a million things together, but that’s not going to happen now,” she said. “But I will keep telling our story if it will save your life or your loved one’s life. I just want everyone to be safe.”

Courtney tells her father’s story to anyone who is hesitant to receive a COVID-19 vaccine—such as the young man who arrived at the university vaccine clinic, which she helped lead. The young man was so overcome with anxiety that he couldn’t bring himself to enter the room where vaccinations were being administered. He froze in the parking lot, while his mother hurried into the room to ask for help.

To assist, Courtney joined the young man in the parking lot and shared her personal story with him. She told him what she’s told every patient who’s heard the story since.

“If the COVID-19 vaccine had been available in time, my father would’ve taken it because I would’ve told him to, and it would have saved his life.”

The young man started to calm down but still wasn’t ready to enter the room for clinical care. Courtney asked him whether he’d like to receive the vaccine there in the parking lot—away from the crowd of other patients. He said that he would, so she rolled her medication cart out to him, administered the vaccine, and had a student pharmacist wait with him for 15 minutes.

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At the time, the death of her father was still quite recent, but Courtney didn’t hesitate to tell his story.

“I cry every time, but if it’s going to save someone’s life, I’m okay with it. That’s the oath I took as a pharmacist.”

Resources to Know What Drives Vaccine Confidence and to help Discuss the Importance of COVID-19 Vaccination are available at APhA’s Vaccine Confident microsite.