On Friday afternoon Debbie Valek administered her 5,000th shot as a vaccinator for the Teton County Health Department.

Most of those jabs have been first and second doses of the Pfizer or Moderna COVID-19 vaccines. A few have been flu, and the most recent have been boosters and additional doses for immunocompromised residents. No matter what shot she’s doling out, Valek is known for her gentle touch.

“People ask for her specifically by name because she’s so painless,” said Public Health Response Coordinator Rachael Wheeler.

Her 5,000th patient was no exception. After a quick question about the “mix and match” approach, Matt Larson rolled up the sleeve of his T-shirt and got the second dose of the Pfizer vaccine shot into his left arm.

“Cool, painless,” he said with a faint smile.

The other nurses and public health staff celebrated the moment with a round of applause, and Valek shed a few tears of joy.

“I’ve seen people die,” Valek said. “I used to work in a nursing home, and I’ve seen them suffer and die of COVID. And so to try to prevent that, I feel happy about doing that.”

The 69-year-old nurse was working at Legacy Lodge before it closed down at the start of the summer. Her daughter, a nurse with the public health department, suggested she help with the vaccination effort.

“At first I thought, ‘Well, gee, I don’t know. Should I work where my daughter works?’” Valek said. “Then I realized how much help they needed.”

Clinic manager Marta Iwaseczko, who used to work with Valek at Legacy Lodge, said the additional support has been “invaluable.”

Between hired vaccinators, administrative assistants and volunteers, “it’s been a real community effort to be able to get the community vaccinated against COVID-19,” she said.

Public health agencies across the country have worked extensively to organize clinics and lead information campaigns so people understand the path out of the pandemic. But all of that planning can still fall short if people are too nervous to get the shot.

“It is scary to a lot of people. The vaccines are new. You just make sure they’re getting the right information,” Valek said. “You just try to keep your personal opinion out of it and give them the facts.”

When she talks to people they loosen up and relax, letting their concerns float away — and they release the tension in their arm muscles, which Wheeler said makes the shot less painful.

The pandemic became personal for Valek when she lost her cousin to the coronavirus. By protecting people one shot at a time, she knows she’s doing her part to keep the community safe.

“I’ve seen people die. I used to work in a nursing home, and I’ve seen them suffer and die of COVID.” — Debbie Valek nurse

Contact Evan Robinson-Johnson at 732-5901 or ERJ@jhnewsandguide.com.

Evan Robinson-Johnson covers issues residents face on a daily basis, from smoky skies to housing insecurity. Originally from New England, he has settled in east Jackson and avoids crowds by rollerblading through the alleyways.

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