Prior to New York critical-care nurse Sandra Lindsay becoming the first person in the U.S. to receive an FDA-approved COVID-19 vaccine, thousands of Americans volunteered themselves as guinea pigs for dozens of vaccine trials being administered by the pharmaceutical companies. Pfizer and Moderna were the first highly effective vaccines approved by the FDA for use in the U.S., and Houston couple Nathan Montgomery, 35, and Andrew Pachan, 34, were two of the men who stepped up to the plate when their country needed them.
Montgomery, who is a human-resources manager for an oil and gas company, and Pachan, who does administration work for skilled-nursing facilities, were selected for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccine studies, respectively. Although the two men have approached the pandemic with a great deal of caution, they were chosen due to their higher level of risk for becoming infected with the virus.
“[The pharmaceutical companies conducting the vaccine trials] want to make sure you’re not just sitting in your house. In order to test the vaccine, you need to be exposed. They were happy that I was traveling for work and going into the office. Before the pandemic, I was flying between Alaska and Texas for work, and I would have to go through Seattle. This was right before Seattle became a hot spot. I was sent to work from home in March, and then was back in the Houston office in April. Most people came back in May,” Montgomery explains.
Pachan, on the other hand, has been working from home since March, and has yet to return to the office. “Once it showed up in the skilled-nursing facilities in Washington, that’s when it hit home hard that this was serious. That’s what I do. I work in nursing homes. I knew early on that we had to take this seriously because it can spread so quickly,” says Pachan.
The couple was taking the same calculated risks that many Houstonians took as the virus moved from spring to summer, and then to fall and winter. “We would eat outside at restaurants. We would go to the store to get groceries,” says Montgomery.
It was during a summer trip to visit Pachan’s family in Ohio that the two had their first real COVID-19 scare. Just as they arrived in Ohio, some Houston friends they had recently spent time with in their “bubble” called the couple to inform them that they had recently tested positive for the virus. Although Montgomery and Pachan were not experiencing any symptoms, they spent the rest of their visit keeping 20 to 30 feet away from Pachan’s family.
Shortly after that, Montgomery learned about the trials on the news and social media, and decided to go online and fill out the questionnaire in hopes of participating in a study. Three weeks later, they called him for a second screening and eventually accepted him into a trial.
“The first in-person appointment was also when I got my first injection. I had been hearing so much from Moderna that I was hoping to be in that trial, but I ended up in the Pfizer trial. I was happy about that. I figured Pfizer is a big name, so they are probably not going to kill me,” jokes Montgomery, who is still alive and well months later.
Pachan, on the other hand, was called almost immediately after filling out the online questionnaire, and two days later he was scheduled for his first appointment and injection as a participant in the Moderna trial. Although both of the approved vaccines are now being administered around the world, Montgomery and Pachan will be observed for up to two years as part of the Pfizer and Moderna studies.
“It’s your job to track and report any side effects you may have,” says Montgomery. Depending on the study, these diary reports are made daily or weekly, and become less frequent as time moves on. Montgomery’s trial involved the use of an app to track symptoms. Both were sent home with thermometers to monitor their temperature and also report back on how they were feeling. Both men had sore arms shortly after injection and ran very mild fevers. But after a short period, those side effects subsided.
The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are administered as two shots given three weeks apart. After both shots, Montgomery felt tired but otherwise fine. Pachan, however, experienced more significant side effects after the second one.
“The day after the second shot, I felt run down and tired. I went to bed early and woke up every hour with a sore arm and achiness. I would get the chills. I tossed and turned—all that stuff. I put off taking medication as long as I could, but around 2 or 3 a.m. I took some Tylenol. After that, I felt a little better. That whole next day I was just tired and achy. By that evening, I was a little better. I took the dog for a walk and then went to bed. I woke up the next morning and felt fantastic. I’ve never had that extreme of a swing,” says Pachan.
Both studies were conducted under “double blind” protocols, meaning that neither the healthcare workers who give the shot nor the recipients know if, in fact, they received a placebo or the vaccine. However, Montgomery has become a bit of a medical detective since receiving the shot. After getting his second dose, both men went to get a COVID-19 antibody test. Both of them were positive for COVID-19 antibodies, so they are fairly confident that they got the real thing.
It will be several months before the couple is officially told whether or not they got the real vaccine, so in the meantime they plan to continue following COVID-19 safety protocols by wearing a mask, practicing social distancing, and encouraging others to do the same.
This article appears in the January 2021 issue of OutSmart magazine.