Nolan Senecal shows off his vaccination card after receiving his first shot Monday, November 8.
Nolan Senecal shows off his vaccination card after receiving his first shot Monday, November 8.

Nolan is ready to get back to business—like speech therapy, in-person class, and trampoline parks. But before getting to all those important tasks, he got his vaccine.

JACKSON, Mich.—Eight-year-old Nolan Senecal doesn’t much look forward to trips to the doctor. And in fairness to him, who does?

Since Nolan has autism, unfamiliar places can be a little more challenging though, with a blur of moving faces and strange requests. But yesterday’s doctor visit was pretty laid back. The nurses at the Jackson County Health Department explained what they were doing and why, then placed him in a private room, away from the noise in the lobby.

Nolan sat down, rolled up his sleeve, and turned away with a grimace. He sat there for a few seconds before turning back puzzled. He didn’t even realize that the nurse had already given him the COVID-19 vaccine shot. 

“Oh, well that was no big deal,” he said, turning to his mom, Brittnee Senecal.

Now, Nolan is halfway through his shot count for the COVID-19 vaccine. For him and his family, it’s a major leap toward normalcy. 

The Shot’s Significance for the Senecals

Brittnee is the mother to three boys, and though she and her husband were vaccinated as soon as possible, they worried for their kids’ safety, all who were too young to be vaccinated. 

As Brittnee sees it, getting vaccinated is the best chance we have to return to normal life, and when Nolan, her oldest, became eligible for the vaccine under new FDA authorization for children from five to 11, she signed him up immediately at the Jackson County Health Department. 

“Vaccinating my children is important because I listen to doctors. I listen to medical experts,” Brittnee, whose husband works for the local hospital, said. “I’m not educated enough or qualified to make these sorts of decisions, but they are. There’s a huge group of people that have worked hard to advance everything medical for our children and for our society, so I just listen to the experts.”

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The staff did a superb job, she said, explaining the shot to Nolan and putting him at ease. When he received the jab, he didn’t even realize it.

Nolan’s vaccination status changes everything for the Senecal family. They’ve been very cautious throughout the pandemic, but in the Jackson area, they often feel left on a masked, vaccinated island at home, as their school district dropped safety measures regarding masks and suddenly—though not unexpectedly, Brittnee said—cases soared. 

Brittnee worried for her children. The boys’ cousin, her nephew, had gotten sick in school, with the source being an unmasked teacher, she said.

“That was really a red flag and opened our eyes, so we decided to go remote,” she said.

That was enough for Brittnee to keep her children out of Jackson-area schools. But she acknowledges that online learning isn’t without its challenges. For Nolan specifically, he takes speech and physical therapy, to help with his fine-motor skills. Those lessons aren’t the same online, she says, and he’s a little bit behind after months of virtual education.

His vaccination means he could return to school soon and receive the in-person experience he’s desperately missed. 

“He just doesn’t get what he normally does in person from the great staff in Jackson, so he is really missing out on that,” his mom said. “I can never replace a teacher.”

Nolan can’t wait to see his friends, either.

“It’s hard to replace that,” she said.

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Hopeful for the Holidays

The two youngest Senecal children will also be receiving their shots soon, as part of a trial for the Moderna vaccine for children under the age of 5. There’s a 25% chance they receive the placebo, Brittnee said, but if they can receive the vaccine, it will let the family get back to living life.

She hopes that this Thanksgiving will be the last holiday they spend at home.

“We make our own food,” she said. “We’ll probably play games. We just act like this is our option, this is how things are, and the boys don’t take it too hard.”

The family likes hiking and being outdoors, so thankfully, they’ve found solace in Michigan’s natural beauty during the pandemic. But Nolan is ready to get back to some of his favorite shared societal experiences—like trampoline parks.

With Nolan vaccinated and his brothers enrolled in the trial, the Senecals have a special trip coming up, to reward the boys for how well-behaved and patient they’ve been during a time that’s defined a large portion of their childhood.

In the spring, the family has already planned to visit Sesame Place, Pennsylvania, the site of the Sesame Street theme park, where the kids can meet their favorite characters and go on rides. Hey, Big Bird is vaccinated too, so by that time, they should be all good.

“That’s what they earned for being good and getting vaccinated and going through this long time period of limiting activities,” Brittnee said.

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