As A Former Litigator Who Spent Two Years In Vaccine Court, Here's How I Feel About The COVID Vaccine

by Amy Impellizzeri
COVID Vaccine standing next to a gavel on a white background
Scary Mommy and t_kimura/Getty

Thank God, one of my teens exclaims when I tell all three of them that we’ve secured vaccine appointments at a clinic an hour away.

And also Pfizer, I joke, mostly to mask my unease with the whole topic.

After a year of waiting for some sign of loosened clutches from this pandemic, I can’t believe, of all things, it’s a vaccine that is standing between us and relief. As I circle the dates on my calendar — one and then another 21 days later — I can’t help but wonder if that’s what I’ll actually feel on the other side — relief? Or something else altogether?

Before I was the mother of three teenagers, I was a lot of things, some of which I barely remember. One I do, though. I started my legal career in Washington D.C. as a judicial clerk in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims. That two-year position with the court that hears all claims against the U.S. government stands as one of the most impactful times of my life, and certainly of my professional career. I worked for Chief Special Master Gary Golkiewicz, a lead architect of the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program, affectionately known as the “Vaccine Court.” The Vaccine Court is a unique forum for trying cases under the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act of 1986 (“The Vaccine Act”) and I was privileged to work there in the mid-1990s.

The Vaccine Court requires claimants alleging injuries from certain vaccines to bring those claims against the government, rather than private vaccine manufacturers, and streamlines the process for both bringing the claims and seeking monetary damages. The Vaccine Act was passed in response to a litigation explosion against the vaccine manufacturers in the 1970s and 1980s which was not particularly successful but did cause the manufacturers to halt research and production, a result which was considered a public health crisis.

It is the only program of its kind, and I should know because I did an exhaustive paper in my third year of law school at George Washington evaluating its potential viability in other areas involving the public interest. I came up empty. I got an A on the paper and, after I sent a copy to Chief Special Master Golkiewicz, who was at the helm of the Vaccine Court at the time, I also got a job.

On my first day at the Vaccine Court, the judge’s outgoing law clerk walked me through the pending docket, the intake process, and the employee expense reimbursement process. When she said goodbye, she answered a question I hadn’t remembered to ask.

“Don’t worry. At the end of all this, you won’t be cynical about vaccines or vaccine manufacturers. You’ll just understand — more fully — how complicated it all is.”

How right she was.

Two years of traveling the country and hearing cases alleging injuries from various childhood vaccines was humbling. Chief Special Master Golkiewicz and I spent hours debating and discussing evidence and agonizing over decisions together. The statute we were operating under made causation largely a formulaic determination. When certain symptoms occurred within a certain time of receiving the vaccine, causation was presumed. Sometimes claimants would try to argue for causation even when they couldn’t fit the formulas. But the science and facts were rarely in their favor. We heard heartbreaking cases, including some in which the medical histories of the children were so complicated and tragic even immediately following birth, we understood why the parents needed somewhere — anywhere — to place their anger and grief and frustration at their child’s current medical needs.

I left the clerkship, knowing a few things: that I wanted to be a litigator, that I wanted to be a mother, and that I would be getting my kids vaccinated.

Under certain conditions.

My children’s first pediatrician was a patient and kind man who answered my questions and honored my demands about spreading out my kids’ vaccines across multiple visits only after I was confident they were otherwise healthy enough to tolerate them.

Every year as more and more vaccines are added to the roster of “required,” I go through the same careful analysis. I ask questions. I do my research. I remember those early days of my legal career, when I learned so much, including not to be cynical.

Still, the swirl of emotions when the COVID vaccine becomes available for teenagers takes me by surprise. On the heels of the global pandemic, I want so badly to believe in something that will “fix” everything, but I can’t ignore the nagging worry that I am being impulsive and careless by scheduling appointments for my three teens at the first available vaccine clinic.

My ex-husband — a physician — and I discuss it and agree that the particular risk reward evaluation for our three children weighs in favor of vaccination. And since we rarely agree on anything anymore, that joint decision feels momentous. And right for us.

My teens are perfectly capable of driving themselves to the vaccine clinic and their father meets them there for the first dose to ensure they can drive themselves home. I insist on driving them to and from the second dose.

“I felt foggy after my own second dose of the vaccine,” I explain to rolled eyes and teen protests. “I don’t want to leave anything to chance.”

We all drive together for the 2+ hour round trip — a rare period of extended even-longer-than-dinner-lasts-these-days uninterrupted time with all three teens in which we cover a variety of topics including the posthumous release of music from Juice WRLD, the newest Olivia Rodrigo album and whether she’ll tour, the status of summer AP homework, the newest work schedules, and emergency contact paperwork still outstanding for various sports camps. Everything we discuss feels like a giant step forward into a post-pandemic world. In a moment I couldn’t have hoped to witness, my oldest takes an impromptu phone interview for an in-person zoo job he’s been hoping for. I get to hear him handle himself with grace and confidence. I hear him get the job.

As we sit waiting the obligatory 15 minutes post-vaccination, before we all get back in the car together, I think again about my years working on the Vaccine Court. I remember poring over documents and science and evidence, and most importantly the stories of so many families. While there can be unending debate for many about whether the vaccines caused their pain, there can be little argument that the Vaccine Act gave them relief. The Vaccine Act and the resulting Vaccine Court provided a complicated, unique and innovative solution to a clear problem after a painstaking risk reward analysis by legislators.

And interestingly, the Vaccine Act basically paved the way for the rapid production of the COVID vaccine over three decades later by clearing the path again for vaccine research and innovation after a tumultuous two decades for the vaccine industry. As my kids get their shots, I’m humbled anew for my time spent working on the Vaccine Court.

As we get back in the car and I relish the time with my loud teens, I know that there’s still so much I don’t know. I’m grateful for the reality that my teens can participate in sports and camp and school and summer. These are the clear side effects of being fully vaccinated. Whether there are others, I don’t yet know. But mixed in with the confusion and worry and frustration, I do feel relief. I cling to it and I think about my predecessor’s words of wisdom uttered on my first day at the Vaccine Court. I marvel at how true they are today over two decades later:

“Don’t worry. At the end of all this, you won’t be cynical about vaccines or vaccine manufacturers. You’ll just understand — more fully — how complicated it all is.”