BIG RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Joan “Jo” Jennett, 88, you might say she is sharp as a needle. When it comes to needles, she has no fear because she has advocated for people braving them most of her life.
Jennett started training to be a nurse in the 1960s in the middle of the polio pandemic.
“We had iron lungs up and down the hallways and people were paralyzed in those iron lungs. I get similar feelings with this pandemic that we’re going through right now but then the Salk vaccine came out (for polio). It was like a miracle and polio is just about eradicated now. So, I’ve seen the good (vaccines) can do,” she said.
Jennett got her second dose of the Pfizer vaccine at the Mecosta County Health Department building in Big Rapids this week. She wanted to share her journey as a continuation of her role as an immunization educator, which she held for 30 years. She retired in the late 90s as director of personal health services in the same department that is helping protect her from COVID-19 now.
It was tragedy that led her to the job in Big Rapids. She, her husband and their five children — all girls — were living in Indianapolis when he died suddenly. Their youngest daughter was just about to turn 2 years old.
Jennett moved them back to Big Rapids where they had lived before and family nearby.
“Those things either make you stronger or they defeat you. You can’t let them do that. So, we came up here and we had quite a full life,” she said.
The health department’s focus is on infectious diseases, which led Jennett to learn a lot about them.
“There are only two ways to handle (them). You either keep on with the disease or you have a vaccine that will either cure it or really bring it down to safer levels,” she explained.
Jennett doesn’t take a strong-armed approach when she encounters people who are skeptical of vaccines, especially the new COVID-19 vaccines.
She recently had car trouble, and the mechanic who picked her up said he wasn’t sure about getting the shot. So, she had a conversation with him and helped him understand the process and the data.
“One thing people often worry about is that they’re going to get the virus by taking the vaccine. I assure them they’re not. This is not a live virus. I try to play up the importance of our doctors and scientists, and that they know what they’re talking about,” said Jennett.
She even helped convince her own daughter, who she says is very intelligent, this is a safe vaccine.
“You just don’t stump them over the head with it. You give them the information, especially when it’s your own kid, they absorb it better. Sometimes they need to think about it and find out a little more but you just kind of get your word in when you can,” she said.
The only other disease Jennett has seen during her time as a health professional that she thinks compares to polio or COVID-19 is HIV.
“Nobody knew much about it. They didn’t know how contagious it was and people who were HIV positive were shunned,” she said. “We don’t have a vaccine for that yet, but we do have medication that controls it. There was a lot of public health information that needed to be given out during those years to get people to understand. When you understand, then you accept it better.”
After gladly sticking out her arm for a second needle poke, Jennett waited her 15 minutes with no negative reaction to the shot then went home. She says plans to find some way to celebrate this important moment in her own life and this important moment in history.