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Case study: Volunteer beat ‘white coat syndrome’ to take part in COVID-19 vaccine trial

Patient story: Tom

Tom, from London, a Tour Manager in the live music industry, quickly found himself without work as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold. “Back in March, my schedule for the year just collapsed in 48 hours. I’m freelance so I lost all my work”, Tom recalls.

So with time on his hands, he soon saw an opportunity to help out. “I saw an ad for the Imperial study and thought ‘that’s great’, because it’s the only way we’ll get back to normal”.

“The first appointment I went for, I was properly nervous. I don’t like hospitals at the best of times.”

The ad Tom saw was for the COVAC1 study, seeking healthy participants to try a potential new vaccine for COVID-19. Signing-up was a big deal for Tom, who previously found visits to doctors and dentists daunting. “I was a bit ‘white coat syndrome’, Tom confessed. “The first appointment I went for, I was properly nervous. I don’t like hospitals at the best of times.

“But it was really good I had the same nurse about three or four times in a row. By the third visit, she was like ‘your blood pressure has completely dropped from the first time I met you’. She said it seemed like I’d been on a marathon or something!”

“You get a lot of reassurance about how safe it is.”

He soon relaxed and settled into his routine of visiting the site. “You get a lot of reassurance about how safe it is”, he said. “I don’t know how to stress that enough - they know what they’re doing.”

“I still can’t look when I give blood. I’ve got over doing it but I just can’t look”, Tom said. But despite that, he’s much more at ease in his appointments. “I don’t have any stresses anymore, I completely trust them.”

The trial is taking place at sites across the country. Tom’s been going to Hammersmith Hospital - part of Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust - where the trial is supported locally by the NIHR Clinical Research Network North West London. He’s visited several times since June last year, and expects to visit several more times until July this year.

The appointments aren’t much of an inconvenience to Tom. Other than the vaccination appointments - which require volunteers to stay back for an hour afterwards to look out for any reactions - he attends for quick, 15-minute, in-and-out appointments.

And the only external ask is to complete an online diary for the first seven days after receiving the vaccine, registering any symptoms.

Taking part has made Tom a strong advocate for research. And he’s keen to send a message to others thinking about taking part. “I would say absolutely do it. The medical staff are fantastic, there’s nothing to worry about and you are completely looked after”, he said.

Tom’s advocacy has led him to getting involved in online discussions, supporting the vaccine rollout campaigns.

“’re essentially getting a free health check...”

He’s found unexpected positives too. “It’s actually better to do a clinical trial because you get a regular health check-up. They are taking blood and can find things”, he said. “They actually noticed something with my liver, which turned out to be fine, just a small thing I needed advice on, but I wouldn’t have known.

“So you’re essentially getting a free health check and you could find something wrong with you that you didn’t know about.”

Volunteering in research came about for Tom after losing work to the pandemic. But when the live music industry returns and Tom goes back to work, his interest looks set to stay. He’s keen to keep advocating for research and plans to look out for future opportunities to take part.