Health-care leaders recall moment of hope when COVID-19 vaccine arrived in La Crosse one year ago

'I think hope sustains us': La Crosse health-care leaders saw COVID-19 vaccine's arrival as hope in midst of pandemic

LA CROSSE, Wis. (WKBT) — The first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine arrived in La Crosse one year ago Tuesday. Staffers at Mayo Clinic Health System and Gundersen Health System waited for something brand new to arrive in the community.

This single delivery inside the car of a Wisconsin State trooper was a sign of hope for La Crosse, these health-care professionals thought. The first recipients said the moment lifted a tremendous weight off their tired shoulders.

“It’s been a really long year,” said Jenny Tempelis, regional pharmacy director at Mayo Clinic Health System.

As if 2020 didn’t stack enough barriers in front of people like Tempelis, 2021 built its own barricade.

“We knew that this was going to help,” Tempelis said.

Tempelis vividly remembers the day the first COVID-19 vaccine doses arrived at Mayo’s front door.

“Similar weather — it was a little gloomy,” she said.

Dr. Elizabeth Cogbill at Gundersen remembers details like this, too.

“That tells you how powerful emotionally that experience was for all of us,” Cogbill said.

Cogbill received the first dose of the vaccine inside her health-care system.

“I just remember feeling so humbled, and so privileged, and honored to be in that position,” Cogbill said.

Certified nursing assistant Katie Kotek was one of Mayo’s first recipients.

“You never think you’ll be picked first for something like that,” Kotek said.

Cogbill saw the impact the vaccines made in La Crosse’s nursing homes.

“We saw the outbreaks almost completely stop,” Cogbill said. “It was miraculous.”

Yet here we sit with hospitals witnessing deja vu with rising cases two new variants and a majority of hospital space filled with unvaccinated patients.

“The hospital is keeping these people for weeks at a time. And no visitors; you can’t see your family,” Kotek said. “The only people you’re seeing are the medical professionals that are coming in there. That’s hard.”

Cogbill’s experience taught her it is hard to find meaning where there’s no experience.

“COVID is data and somewhat meaningless unless it touches you personally,” she said.

Tempelis said she can only recommend the best options for people.

“You don’t want to try to force or convince, but provide information,” Tempelis said.

She said she is glad her family chose the vaccine.

“I’m very grateful that the five of us aren’t going to be spending the holidays in the hospital,” Tempelis said.

Despite long hours, and the pandemic’s toll on these community neighbors, they continue their service. All because of the hope that arrived in a box one year ago.

“I think hope sustains us,” Cogbill said. “I believe that.”

These medical professionals said they will continue to work to make sure there are always enough vaccine doses in the community. That way anyone who decides to get vaccinated can do so at any time.

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