Jennifer Paone, a Jefferson nursing student, volunteered to administer the COVID-19 vaccine to front-line workers because she wanted to be part of history.
And she wanted to help as many people as she could avoid what happened to her family.
In October, Paone, 33, her husband, Kevin, and their four children — ages 12, 8, 5, and 4 — were all diagnosed with the virus.
Now recovered, she’s working to help others.
It’s an only-in-2020 story. One that touches on the shared stages of the pandemic: the fear, the unknown, the struggle, and now, the hope. It could be a story of any first responder’s family. After all, you can’t leave a pandemic at work.
Kevin Paone, a Philadelphia firefighter, was the first one to fall ill, coming home from a shift at his Southwest Philly firehouse on Oct. 21 with a fever of 101. It was the day before Paone was set to begin her clinical rotation.
“Great, I’m not going to be able to go tomorrow,” Paone, a day-care teacher in Elkins Park for 11 years before pursuing her dream to become a nurse, recalls telling her husband, who had not yet tested positive.
But no one in the Paone family was going anywhere any time soon.
Kevin Paone had a fever and the chills. (About a half-dozen other firefighters in his company fell ill and recovered.)
Paone started feeling sick the night the family got tested: 103 fever, a headache that wouldn’t quit, sneezing and a cough.
She would be sick at home for three weeks.
The kids fell ill in stages, none of them seriously.
Kevin, 4, had a fever and stuffy nose.
Gracie, 5, lost her sense of taste and smell.
Hailey, 12, was mostly asymptomatic but tested positive for the antibodies.
Layla, who is 8 and autistic, had been the family cop when it came to maintaining social distance and washing hands.
“My throat hurts,” she told her mother.
By early December, the Paones were all feeling better and ending quarantine, just as a vaccine was arriving. Jennifer Paone had hours of clinical rotations to make up. Volunteers were needed to administer the shots, an instructor mentioned.
“I want to do that!” she said.
“I’ve seen what happens,” she went on. “And I was hoping that maybe the vaccination will help people reunite with their families or make some type of normalcy in this world right now.”
Still, she found herself nervous last Wednesday morning, as dozens of Jefferson first responders wound their way through a hospital auditorium, the first batch of hospital personnel to receive the vaccine.
The crowds. The TV crews. The hospital bigwigs. The grief and relief, exhaustion and excitement of a day that felt so long in coming.
One of the first in line was a surgeon who had lost his father to the virus. He cried as he received the shot.
Paone began as an observer, monitoring patients for adverse reactions. Then, she moved on to administering the shots themselves. She joked with patients. The “I’ve been vaccinated for COVID-19,” stickers were going like hotcakes, she laughed.
“Her dedication and fortitude to get the job done is really remarkable,” said Jen Bellot, a physician and associate dean at Jefferson College of Nursing. “She has been a calm force, kind, bubbly but taking it all in stride.”
For Paone, it was another chapter for her family this year.
Finally, one of shared hope.
“I felt like I was part of history,” she said.