Facing our Fears

Reflections on the experience of volunteering at a local vaccination centre

Guest post by KLS member Natalia Marten, who has recently started the process of conversion to Judaism, describing her experience of volunteering at a local vaccination centre.

It has been almost 10 months since our lives changed dramatically, and as a Jew in the making, I can’t help to spot similarities between everyday life events, the world’s current situation, and each weeks Parashat.

Same as Moses did to pharaoh – facing all fears and darkness – I did on Saturday 23rd January – the Shabbat in which we read Parashat Bo – only to find light, kindness, hope and freedom.  I had agreed to volunteer at a local vaccine centre – and saw how everyone there was also coming to an uncomfortable place, physically and emotionally, to earn that well deserved freedom we all crave.

A Kabbalist once told me: “Once you finally did everything you could to change your situation, get busy helping others, and the universe will take care of you”.

I joined KLS only a couple of months ago, it was not a difficult decision, it was an obvious one, and for me, the next step to take. There was no other way forward.

KLS member Natalia at the vaccination centre

Once I joined, I started receiving a weekly newsletter. A couple of weeks ago KLS encouraged us to get involved with volunteering opportunities in the Kingston area, and I remember what the Kabbalist said.

The process was simple, clear, and very efficient, it only took 2 days for me to get the application approved, and I was ready to book my first session as a volunteer with the New Malden & Worcester Park Primary Care Network Vaccination Programme.

I signed up for the afternoon shift which started at 12:15.  Getting there was a bit chaotic but only because it was the end of the morning shift, and the beginning of the afternoon one. The first thing new arrivals did was to take a rapid test, if negative then we were cleared and assigned to our posts. 

There were 3 different tasks, one of them was outside, and being from the tropics I was somehow anxious about them asking me to work with that team, but fortunately everything went according to plan, and I was assigned to work as an “Escort Volunteers”. My job was to wait for the patient to get vaccinated, and then escort them to the observation room and explain to  them that they needed to wait 15 minutes before checking out  with the GP. Some arrived by themselves, others came with their carers, partners, spouses, or other family members, and they were always invited to stay with the patient at all times.

I was assigned to work with a lovely woman named Penny. So, there I was, anxious, very much anticipating the unexpected, trying to remember what I learned from the Volunteer Training Handbook, and at the same time being conscious about keeping social distancing and not touching my face mask or my face. This was the third time for Penny and she shared tips and took the time to explain to me everything in detail. She was kind, sweet, funny, witty, and very polite, I decided to mirror what she was doing and using the same “script” she was using to explain the patients what was next for them while walking them to the observation room. My attention was being caught  by so many things at the same time: the diversity, the respect of the rules, and protocols, the patience of those waiting to get their first dose, the focus and kindness of  the vaccinators, the constant supervision, the dedication of every single person present: patients, doctors, vaccinators, pharmacists, supervisors, volunteers. 

For me, it was a very intense experience, trying to absorb things, being self conscious, learning fast, finding the best “words”.  I learned it is all about keeping it simple, being honest, clear, and being absolutely empathetic, being yourself. Most of the people there were nervous, and anxious, and didn’t know what to expect, and our job was to transmit confidence in an assertive and kind way. Very much like parenting, letting your children know you are in control and know what you are doing so they will trust you, and know what to expect. They know you have their backs and that you are there for them (Even if you harbour doubts and fears; like Moses did)

I would say that more than 80% of the people who attended during my shift were over 70 yo. However, I was surprised to see many unusual cases; really young people, some of them with very obvious health issues, disorders or special conditions, but others looked as healthy as the healthiest person on the planet. Fighting the ego and not judging (a constant conversation in your head) was part of the process and soon you get used to understand that if they are there they need it and we should all celebrate that they finally will develop the much needed immunity that might save their lives. Every patient was a success, even the ones not very happy about having to be there, and some even did not wait the 15 minutes in the observation room. And again, you learn it is about respect, and that no one can force them to get the vaccine, or to wait just to make sure there will be no allergic reactions or other problems. Talk about free will!

I kept thinking about the upcoming portion of the Torah Beshalach, and how the Israelites, when facing the sea and being chased by the Egyptians, told Moses: Why did you bring us here to die? We should have stayed and continue being slaves but alive.

 Is it only me the one who see the similarities? A woman (under 40yo) had an anxiety attack and a doctor had to get on the floor and stay with her for more than 15 minutes explaining with very soothing and stable tone of voice why it was safe for her to have the vaccine and answering all her questions. She may have been thinking “I prefer to go back home and continue shielding, and never go out again, never seeing my friends and family….” But she finally understood that it was about certainty, and knowing that what she was about to do, was the right thing, not just for her, for everybody else. She was going to be fine… and she was!

I also had the opportunity to escort a beautiful lady with beautiful silver hair (there were many beautiful  silver heads and I kept daydreaming I will, someday, have that same silver hair colour) being overwhelmingly thankful, she kept repeating: I am so happy, I waited so long for this, I can see the light now, we are closer to the end, thank you thank you thank you!

It was an exhausting experience, very rewarding, but I am not going to lie, the last 1.5 hours felt long and I couldn’t feel my feet anymore. We only had a very short break (about 10 minutes) and I had a cup of tea, and a protein bar, there was a huge table full of food but it was hard to pick the right thing and I couldn’t get rid of this feeling of having to go back to my post as soon as possible, but it was really nice to see how many people send treats and food for the ones volunteering.

Just some of the food available together with a progress board!

I don’t live my life waiting for signals, messages or direct answers from “above”.  I have doubts of course, and every now and then, I find myself not knowing if what I am doing is right or the right thing for me, or the right thing at all. When that happens I usually ask for help and advice, from people I trust. Converting to Judaism is not one of them, I didn’t have to ask anyone or get confirmation or approval.

But I find it funny that since I decided to join KLS for my conversion process, I keep having these random experiences that (to me) are clear confirmations that I am in the right place, and doing the right thing. I have certainty (like the Israelites that trusted Moses facing the sea) that I am not alone, that I am part of a Family / Community and that I am accepted and valued as I am. Why am I telling you this?  I had 5 hours to chat with my lovely volunteer partner  Penny, who asked me why I chose to volunteer there, and I told her that it was suggested by my Synagogue, she started laughing and asked: “ So, you then know Sandra Webber? She is a dear friend of mine, please tell her I said hi”. They both had a child around the same time and they grew up very close. What are the odds?

It confirmed once again (without me asking) that I am in the right place, I am doing the right thing, and I highly recommend everyone to get involved and volunteer.

There are so many different opportunities, and ways to contribute that I am sure anyone, no matter the background, age, current employment or education status, even resources, can find the perfect one. But I want to stress the importance and relevance of what volunteers do, they do make a difference, this vaccination campaign could not be possible without the volunteers. Also, it changes us as individuals, it is transformative, and encourages humility, helps you stay grounded, and teaches a massive lesson about appreciation and unconditional love.

Maybe, by getting busy helping others, the universe will take care of you, and whatever challenge you are going through.  Bonus – If you are fortunate like me, you might also have a very sweet and meaningful coincidence.

Thank you KLS for taking care of me in ways you don’t even realise! I signed up for 4 more sessions and hope to see Penny again. 

Exhausted but happy at the end of a long shift