Vaccine Voices: ‘I’m so proud.’ A determined mom soothes her children’s vaccine anxiety

Eight-year-old Emiliano Rangel couldn’t wait to get his COVID-19 vaccine. His mom, Maria Rangel, got hers first; next came sister and brother, Ruby, 15, and Giovanni, 14. But Emiliano was still too young. 

“Ever since he saw his brother and sister vaccinated, he asked ‘When is the vaccine coming for me?’” recalled Maria, bilingual programs coordinator for NW Disability Support. “He was extra cautious. He was parenting us. He said, ‘I don’t know if I want to go to school because I’m not vaccinated.’”

The approval for children ages five to 11 came in October 2021. “I was so excited when the vaccine was approved for him,” Maria said. But she was in for a surprise. As the day of his vaccination approached, Emiliano grew so anxious he didn’t think he could go through with it.

Maria is no stranger when it comes to children with special needs. Teenager Ruby has Down syndrome, and Maria is a pro at figuring out tips to make her daughter’s life easier. But Emiliano had never seemed anxious before, and now she wasn’t sure what to do. “He started talking about it every day, saying, ‘I don’t know if I want to get vaccinated.’ Then he’d say, ‘but I do.’” 

Maria’s employer, NW Disability Support, offers vaccines on site, but because Maria had to work she arranged for her neighbors to drive Emiliano to his appointment. Once he got there, things didn’t go well. His previous enthusiasm for getting vaccinated turned to terror. 

“He shut down,” Maria recalled. “He communicates very well usually, but he wasn’t able to tell me what was going on. He was crying.” 

Someone at the clinic told Emiliano not to cry, but that only made him sob harder. Finally, Maria said she would take him home and they would get the vaccine from the family pediatrician who has given Emiliano all his regular vaccinations – with no problem. But he resisted. “He wouldn’t get out of the chair,” Maria said. And yet, he told her he didn’t want to leave without getting vaccinated. She said, “Honey, we’ve been here two hours.”  

Emiliano finally agreed to let Maria and older brother Giovanni hold him while he was vaccinated. And it worked, but not without a toll. Emiliano “exploded,” kicking and screaming for 15 minutes. Soon after Maria calmed him, she realized they’d have to go through it all over again soon for the second shot.  

She needed a better plan. 

The Rangle family: Emiliano, mom Maria, Ruby and Giovanni

She sought advice from her co-workers, and the first step was giving Emiliano the Fighting COVID and Beating COVID comic books created by NW Disability Support designed to provide education and information about COVID-19.  

Then, Maria recalled how the vaccinator had helped Ruby with her shot by explaining everything she was doing. I’m opening the alcohol to clean your arm. I’m cleaning your arm. I’m getting the vaccine. It’s right there. Let’s count, 1-2-3 and done. 

It was time to put similar tools to work for Emiliano. Maria contacted the vaccinator ahead of time and asked her to fill out any required paperwork before they arrived. She also requested the vaccinator use numbing spray, and to wait until after Emiliano got the shot to ask any necessary questions. The vaccinator agreed to the plan.

On the day of the appointment, Emiliano sat, lifted his shirt, and looked into his mother’s eyes. “I bent down to be on his level,” Maria said. “He said, ‘Hold my hand, please.’ Then he got his vaccine and that was it. I was tearing up. I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m so excited you did this. I’m so proud.’

Maria has come to believe that Emiliano’s anxiety was not triggered by a fear of needles, but by ongoing scary news and rumors surrounding the pandemic. She also knew her experience with Emiliano could help other parents with kids who are anxious.    

One family recently sought her advice. 

“The dad told me his son was very anxious,” Maria said. “He asked, ‘Can you be the one who supports him? He’ll do better with you than me.’” So, she did. Another mom witnessed this and told Maria about her 17-year-old son who was too nervous to get the shot. “I told her, ‘We are here to meet everyone’s needs. If you call me, I can arrange to do for your son what I did for my son.’” 

“This mom was like, ‘I didn’t know we could do that. I thought we had to do it a certain way. It’s such a relief to know, OK, I can ask for that.’”