By Erin Anderson
AIHA Director of Programs and Advancement

Getting an injection is the last thing most patients want to do. But COVID-19 and the isolation the pandemic has imposed is causing many to reverse course. “Patients can’t wait to get their shots,” AIH patient and COVID vaccinator Leeanne Patterson notes.

Patterson, who lives in California, witnesses their joy firsthand as a volunteer who administers COVID-19 vaccines. Patterson recently sat down with us for a Q&A where she shared her experience with autoimmune hepatitis and how the pandemic has led her to a fulfilling new volunteer role.

Can you tell us about your connection to autoimmune hepatitis?

I was diagnosed almost four years ago in May 2016. I was working as vice president of risk management for a big hospital system. We had about 22 hospitals and almost 300 clinics in four different states. I’m a nurse and an attorney, and I took on the role in 2013. I was traveling a lot and working 14-16 hour days. So I was tired a lot.

But I became overwhelmingly tired, and then I started itching. Eventually I discovered over a period of time after multiple tests and a liver biopsy that I have autoimmune hepatitis.

When and how did you become a COVID-19 vaccinator?

I essentially retired about a year and a half ago in August of 2019, and prior to that my husband and I were very involved in mission work. Every year we would do at least one medical mission trip. We did 13 years in Guatemala doing cleft lip and palate repairs. And then for the last three years, we went to Africa assisting with general and plastic surgeries.

In 2020, COVID pretty much shut down all our travel. I was feeling pretty down between not working anymore and not being able to do my mission work. When the opportunity arose, I wanted to help. It gave me a purpose again and makes me feel like I’m making a difference. It also allowed me to get the vaccine.

Are you concerned at all about getting COVID while giving vaccines even though you are vaccinated?

I started giving vaccines literally the day that I received the first vaccine so I didn’t have any protection at that point in time. I wear a mask that has a triple layer and filters inside. And I wear my prescription glasses. I wear gloves and use hand sanitizer in between each patient. Everybody who gets vaccinated is required to wear a mask as well. So I haven’t felt nervous about it at all.

How many vaccinations have you given so far?

I haven’t kept track, but each day when I go into the clinic and volunteer, I give about 50 to 100 vaccines.

What have patients’ reactions been to receiving the vaccine?

So many patients who have sat in the chair next to me have said, “I typically don’t like shots, but I’m so excited to get this” because they feel like it’s the end of this isolation that we’ve had for so long and a return to some semblance of normalcy. We have them wait for 15-20 minutes after getting the vaccine to make sure they don’t have a reaction, and it’s almost like a party in the courtyard, even though people are keeping their distance and wearing their masks. They’re really excited.

What do you enjoy about this role?

I was a nurse for 20 years, and then I got a law degree in 1993, so I really hadn’t practiced nursing other than my mission work. But I miss healthcare in many ways because you see results much more quickly than you do when you practice law and do litigation. We’ve all been pretty isolated, and this role makes me feel like I’m making a difference and that we’re getting a handle on controlling COVID-19 in our nation. It’s been very rewarding.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

My best wishes and blessings to each and every member of the Autoimmune Hepatitis Association who’s struggling with the disease. We’re all in this together.