Bookmark and Share

Why I got the COVID vaccine while pregnant

Rebecca MacDonell-Yilmaz Special to Providence Journal USA TODAY NETWORK COVID-19 restrictions prevented my sons, 5 and 7, from seeing their baby sister in the hospital after she was born last February. They finally met her after they came home from school. Both used hand sanitizer before gently stroking her cheek, excited and tentative.

I felt the same way six weeks earlier when offered a first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. I’m a hospital-based palliative care physician and overjoyed a COVID-19 vaccine was available to me. I am also a pediatrician with a deep understanding of why vaccines are safe and beneficial. Still, I thought long and hard. I had several miscarriages before becoming pregnant with my daughter.

While scientific evidence clearly showed the vaccine was safe and effective, clinical trials excluded pregnant women.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention called the decision to get vaccinated a personal choice for pregnant and breastfeeding women to make in consultation with their doctors.

My decision became clear once I weighed the risks of the vaccine versus contracting COVID-19. I worked up until the day I went into labor. While my colleagues shielded me, taking consults on COVID-19 positive patients, I was in a high-risk setting. Studies show pregnant women with COVID-19 were significantly more likely to be admitted to an intensive care unit and to die. There is evidence COVID-19 increases the risk of pre-term births.

Understanding how the vaccine works — making it extremely unlikely to harm my baby — and the risks I faced as a pregnant physician, I concluded my baby and I would be safer if I got the vaccine. My OB/GYN supported my decision.

The day after my first dose, I had a headache and felt more tired than usual. Was it from rounds at the hospital that day, then spending the evening decorating for the holidays with my sons? Maybe. After my second dose three weeks later, I felt no more tired than normal. I reported these experiences to the CDC’s v-safe COVID-19 Vaccine Pregnancy Registry, as one of the nearly 4,000 pregnant women enrolled. As a researcher, I know collecting good data is the only way to develop reliable public health guidelines to protect the safety of women and their babies.

Preliminary findings from the v-safe study published last April in the New England Journal of Medicine showed no difference in rates of pre-term births, underweight newborns or stillbirths among women receiving the vaccine compared to pre-pandemic rates.

The vaccine is still not approved for children under 12. My sons went off to school, wearing their superhero-themed face masks, travel-size bottles of hand sanitizer swinging from their backpacks. But my daughter’s immune system should protect her against COVID-19. The vaccine prompted my immune system to produce antibodies against the virus. I passed them to my baby before birth and continue to do so through my breastmilk. Her immune system is equipped to fight off the virus if she is exposed, in the same way standard childhood vaccines protect her from polio, pertussis and diphtheria.

Over a year ago, my husband couldn’t be with me in the exam room to see our baby on ultrasound and hear her heartbeat for the first time. After the appointment, I drove straight to his office where we hugged and cried over black and white pictures. After so much disappointment, we let ourselves feel excitement and hope.

I never imagined I would wade through the scientific literature to decide how best to protect myself and my unborn child because no evidence yet existed. If I had to do it all over again, would I still get the vaccine while pregnant?

Yes, I would. In a heartbeat.

Rebecca MacDonell-Yilmaz is a physician trained in pediatrics, hospice and palliative medicine and pediatric hematology and oncology. She is a palliative care consultant and site supervisor for HopeHealth in Providence.

Bookmark and Share