On Thursday morning, registered nurse Cydney Begnaud pushed the plunger on her syringe and delivered the first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine to Dr. Joseph Brierre, the oncologist who helped save her life from breast cancer 20 years earlier. He was her first patient of the day; a moment of serendipity that heightened her pride in participating in the outset of the historic mass vaccination effort.

“He sat in my chair and we were visiting and I said, ‘You know, Dr. Brierre, you saved my life 20 years ago and today giving you this vaccine is such an honor, because I hope that I can help to save yours,’” Begnaud said.

Begnaud helped administer some of the first 136 doses of Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine given to frontline health care workers at Our Lady of Lourdes Regional Medical Center and the Our Lady of Lourdes Heart Hospital on Thursday. Our Lady of Lourdes expects to administer roughly 1,000 doses across its facilities in the first vaccine round, spokesperson Elisabeth Arnold said.

The vaccinations began at 7 a.m. Thursday and Begnaud said the atmosphere was energized. The nurse said she was honored to help others who are putting their lives on the line to provide patient care every day.

Red foil confetti dotted the floor and novelty signs including a giant syringe reading “I Got the Shot” were piled on a table, as health care workers proudly slapped on “#GottheShot” stickers while making follow-up appointments to receive the second vaccine dose in 21 days.

It was a small moment of triumph and joy after months of onslaught.

Dr. Frank Courmier, a pulmonary specialist and critical care doctor, has worked directly with COVID-19 patients throughout the pandemic. He said he and his team are “worn out” as they handle a surge of patients in the current COVID-19 wave, but they continue to be all hands on deck. While the hospital has adequate resources right now, there’s fear and anxiety about being able to maintain the needed level of intense care during each surge, Courmier said.

Being one of the first to receive the COVID-19 vaccine was a needed moment of relief, he said.

“[I felt] a lot of emotion….An immense sense of joy of being able to end what’s been so difficult to deal with. We’ve had a lot of tragedy and to be able to avoid that gives me immense hope. We will continue to fight, we will continue to go on but it’s been very difficult,” Courmier said, choking on a sob as he held back tears.

The critical care doctor said he’s leaned on his faith, conversations with his family and the support of fellow hospital staff to make it through a grueling nine months. The release of the vaccine feels like the first time care providers have been able to go on the offense against the virus; it’s a tangible sign of hope, he said.

“There’s been a lot of pain and it’s been very difficult to find a way to carry on sometimes. There have been some very dark moments here and this has been a very bright moment for us,” Courmier said.

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He said as a physician he can appreciate the “immensity” and the “monumental undertaking...to get here.” Courmier said he read and “critically appraised” the study Pfizer-BioNTech submitted to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to receive emergency use authorization to distribute the vaccine in the United States. He said he feels confident in the data and science, and comfortable enough to take the vaccine without apprehension or fear.

“It’s not about us, it’s not about the government, it’s not about whatever, it’s just about the science. The science says it’s safe. Now, nothing is 100% safe, there is no such thing as that, we all recognize that...but I think for the general public, in comparison to the risk of COVID, this is enormous. This is huge,” he said.

Edward Broussard, Our Lady of Lourdes Regional Medical Center pharmacy director, and his staff are responsible for tracking the vaccine’s temperature during transit and administration, distribution of the vials during vaccine clinic days and coordinating with Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center in Baton Rouge, the medical system’s vaccine management hub, to maintain inventory.

It’s a precise process, he said, because every action impacts the longevity of the vaccine. Once transferred from an ultra-low temperature freezer to a standard medical refrigerator, the vaccine is good for five days. Once diluted with sodium chloride for injection, it’s good for six hours; if left undiluted at room temperature, it’s only good for two hours, Broussard said.

“This is like gold here,” Broussard said, gesturing to refrigerated vials of the vaccine in the medical center’s pharmacy. It’s important not to lose product, he said.

Each vial contains 2mL of COVID-19 vaccine, which equals five doses once it’s mixed with sodium chloride, Broussard said. The small vials are packed into plastic baggies with a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention label with the vaccine’s delivery information and use by date, and sit in a red tray awaiting retrieval at 2 to 8 degrees Celsius.

While the vaccine is a bright spot, medical professionals are warning the public not to become complacent with safety precautions. Mask wearing, hand washing, social distancing and limiting gatherings remain important to control virus spread while the vaccine is rolled out over the coming months, Begnaud said.

“We know that this is difficult. It’s been difficult on us and it’s been difficult for the community. We know that many people that get sick will be fine, but we don’t know who won’t be and it’s those people we worry about….For us, for your family, for your loved ones, please adhere to the guidelines. Help us out, help your own families out so that future Christmases will be bright and for future holidays we’ll be able to gather,” Courmier said.

Begnaud said she plans to receive the vaccine herself after all frontline medical workers have been vaccinated. She said she felt the process was safe, those she vaccinated responded well to the shot and she trusts the science. The nurse asked the general population to make plans to receive the vaccine when it’s available.

“Please, please, please vaccinate and if you don’t think it’s important for yourself, do it for somebody else. Be selfless and do it for somebody else if you think it’s a joke or not necessary; do it for someone else,” she said.

Email Katie Gagliano at kgagliano@theadvocate.com