“Can you keep a secret?”
December 21, 2020, “was like any other day,” until 10 a.m., when ChristianaCare’s Director of Employee Health Tabe Mase got a call from the chief operations officer.
“She said, ‘The president-elect and the first lady are going to be coming to ChristianaCare for their vaccines and we would like for you to give them their vaccines.’ Then I went into operations mode,” Mase said, preparing where and how she’d administer the shots. “I was just honored that our senior leadership trusted me enough at being steady enough to administer the vaccine to both the president and the first lady.”
Although Mase had met Joe Biden before—once at the Amtrak station and another time after a choral concert she performed in—this was certainly different.
By early that afternoon, Mase was busy prepping in a separate room until the actual moment she was ready to vaccinate him, when she saw all the media and Secret Service.
“While I was preparing the vaccine, we had a little chit-chat. He said, ‘This must be hard. You guys are working so hard,’” she says. “I like to make sure that all of my patients are ready so I don’t startle anybody, so I asked him if he wanted me to count 1, 2, 3, and he said, ‘No, just go ahead,’ but he was so grateful.”
Mase also gave Dr. Jill Biden her shot a few minutes earlier (both received the Pfizer vaccine). After the president-elect got his first dose, Mase and Biden shared a fist bump.
Mase grew up in Cameroon, where she earned a bachelor’s in English and French linguistics from University of Delaware, moving to Delaware for her husband’s residency and obtaining a master’s in nursing at Wilmington University. Little did she know that her moment in the spotlight with Biden was being broadcast around the globe.
“I had just finished giving him the vaccine and he was going to go out to speak to some of our leaders and caregivers, and I had my phone on…and it started just vibrating. I grabbed it quickly, trying to whisper. It was my sister in Cameroon, Africa! She said, ‘I’m here with [our mother],’” and they were watching the live coverage on the news. “She started sending me screenshots of myself taken from CNN. …I had barely given the vaccine when I got an international call to say, ‘That was you, wasn’t it?’”
And it didn’t stop there. “The calls kept coming. My husband was getting calls. My entire family! My siblings in Europe were getting calls. …It really didn’t hit me until I saw the reaction of family members and others.”
At the time, she explains, “I wasn’t trying to think through who was getting the vaccine but that I was going do this in the best way I know how with all of my training. I have given thousands of vaccines. I was going to make sure it was done effectively and see it through.”
In the end, “I’m so humbled that I was able to represent the organization and all other healthcare workers,” she says. “Everyone has played a part in seeing us through this pandemic, all the way to the vaccine rollout.”
When it was time for the Joe Biden’s second vaccine dose on January 11, ChristianaCare tapped Ric Cuming, a 35-year nursing veteran, chief nurse executive and president of ChristianaCare HomeHealth.
Cuming hails from Montreal originally, “so you’re talking to two immigrants who got to vaccinate the president-elect of the United States of America,” he says.
“On December 21, I had some spare time in the afternoon and I decided to walk over to the vaccination center just to see how things were going,” but he had no idea the Bidens were there for their initial doses. “This was a very, very well-kept secret,” he says. He soon spotted thick crowds, black SUVs and a phalanx of Secret Service and put it together. “I just turned around and went back to my office because I was pretty sure, even though I’m the chief nurse executive at ChristianaCare, I wasn’t getting in the room.
“But the funny piece about this is as I get back to my office, my phone started blowing up and it was people that I’ve professionally associated with from all over the country, saying, ‘Oh my God, President-elect Biden just got vaccinated at your healthcare system. How cool is this?’ People were really excited that he had been vaccinated publicly. So that happened all afternoon, and I had absolutely no idea that I would be at all involved in this later,” he says.
“A couple days later, I was talking with Tabe about business operations. I remember saying to her, ‘So, Tabe, how does it feel to be the most famous nurse practitioner in the world?’ Then, probably about a week before [the Bidens] were due to come in again, our chief operating officer popped in and said, ‘What are you doing on Monday the 11th? Would you mind vaccinating President-elect Biden?’ I said, ‘Sure! I’d be happy to. And that was it.”
Cuming had been giving vaccines regularly, so he confesses that he wasn’t overly stressed at the time about the prospect of inoculating the next president.
“I was not allowed to tell anybody,” he reveals. “I did tell my family to have CNN on at a particular time, but I didn’t tell them why because I wasn’t allowed to and I’m a rule follower. The day came, and Tabe was very helpful gathering the stuff that I needed to have with me. She’d been through it all. I met some of the Secret Service folks that were his advance team—really nice people.” (Mase administered Dr. Biden’s second vaccination the following day.)
Behind the scenes, Cuming and the Biden team were arranging the seating and media access, while going over the “kerfuffle” of having so many people there and a boom mic overhead.
“So then in he came, and he looked just like he does on TV, and he had his mask on,” Cuming says. “The first thing he said to me was, ‘Thank you for doing this.’ Other than ‘my pleasure,’ what do you say to that, right? It’s absolutely my pleasure.”
Biden sat down, rolled up his left sleeve and said, “Ready when you are.”
“After the vaccine was done and the Band-Aid was on, he said he didn’t feel a thing,” Cuming reveals. “He then took some questions from the press for a couple of minutes.”
After almost everyone but the Secret Service agents had left, Cuming got a chance to chat further with Biden. “He wanted to know how we were doing at ChristianaCare and how the caregivers were managing with COVID and dealing through this very lengthy pandemic, and he was genuinely concerned about people. He thanked me for the work that we were doing. He asked me to please make sure that I shared that with all of our team, which of course I have.”
As it happened, that chat led to a fortuitous meeting, Cuming says. “He also knew that I was the president of the Home Health Organization and he has a particular interest in expanding home care and and care in the home—not just traditional home care, but care in the home…as an important place for people to get care instead of hospitals, rehab centers or skilled nursing facilities. As a result of that conversation, about a week later I got to speak with his adviser on home health and health care, so that was amazing access I had not anticipated.”
Cuming, too, started getting phone calls as soon as his footage went live. “After CNN aired it and then it was everywhere else, then my phone started blowing up from people all over the country, including folks in Canada. People I went to high school with. People are proud that they know the person who was able to vaccinate President-elect Biden with his second Pfizer vaccine.”
Cuming was solely focused on Biden the patient versus Biden the next president at the time, he explains, “so it didn’t hit me until later. And then I started thinking about it. Here I am this guy from Montreal, right? Graduated nursing school in the early ’80s. That day, I became part of history.” A friend from Miami texted him, writing, “‘Do you realize that because of what you just did, anytime in the future when someone looks up COVID, COVID vaccination, the United States of America, your picture is going be there?’ That’s overwhelming.”
He emphasized that it’s Biden’s picture and he just “happens to be in it,” but says the entire experience is “an amazing nursing story. [Tabe and I] were there as nurses and we were caring for our patient, just as millions of nurses have done across this country and around the globe during the worst pandemic of our lifetime. I don’t feel like that can be understated.”
As for his personal experience with President Biden—like with all his patients—Cuming is “deeply grateful that he trusted us with his care.”