First in Line: Charlestown Native, WW II Veteran, the First VA Patient to Get COVID-19 Vaccine

Blazing a trail once again, Charlestown native Margaret Klessens was the first Veterans Administration (VA) patient or resident in the United States to receive the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine on Monday at the Bedford VA Hospital where she resides in an assisted living facility.

Her message, though, was not to close the history books on her just yet, because she’s not quite done.

Charlestown native Margaret Klessens, a member of the Old Charlestown Schoolgirls and who would have been the Grand Marshal of the Parade last June, made history once again on Monday at 12:04 p.m. She was the first VA patient or resident to get the COVID-19 vaccine in the United States. Living at the Bedford VA Hospital, she was offered to be the first, and took the opportunity.

“I’m 96, but very young at heart,” she said on Tuesday. “I’m not ready for the history books yet.”

Klessens grew up in Charlestown and is a member of the Old Charlestown Schoolgirls Association. A veteran of World War II in the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps (WACS), she had also been chosen as the 2020 Grand Marshal of the Battle of Bunker Hill Day Parade – and honor that had to be postponed due to the Parade last June being cancelled. Assured that she will be the 2021 Grand Marshal, now there will be even more to celebrate about the unique path Klessens has cut in life.

“People keep saying this is historic and that’s strange to me,” she said. “I think what is historic or heroic is my siblings and the others that stormed the beaches on D-Day. I wasn’t trying to make history here. I got it because everyone here has been waiting for this vaccine. I suppose they can say an elderly woman was the first to take it and if they want other people to take it, maybe that will be an incentive for others.

“It’s just great news for this horrible virus,” she continued. “We’ve all been waiting for this to come around. We’ve been quarantining here at the VA since the virus problem started. People can’t come in here and we can’t go out at all. That shows the excellent care they give us, but maybe this can help us to be able to go out again.”

A proud Townie, Klessens said on Monday the nurses were saying they had received the Pfizer vaccine at the VA hospital. They were asking residents if any of them wanted to be the first, and Klessens wasn’t shy to volunteer. She said they checked up on her Tuesday morning, and she is scheduled to get another booster vaccine in three weeks.

“The doctor came in on Tuesday morning and asked how I was doing, and I told him, ‘Well, I’m not dead yet,’” she said with a laugh.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) announced on Monday morning that the New Orleans and Bedford VA Medical Centers were to be the first two department facilities to begin administration of COVID-19 vaccinations to frontline health care employees and Veterans residing in long-term care Community Living and Spinal Cord Injury and Disorder centers.

Klessens lives in the long-term care facility at Bedford. Both facilities are part of the initial group of 37 VA medical centers across the country that began receiving and administering the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine this week.

The sites were chosen for their ability to vaccinate large numbers of people and store the vaccines at extremely cold temperatures.

“Ultimately, the department’s goal is to offer the vaccine to all Veterans receiving care at VA,” said VA Secretary Robert Wilkie. “As increased vaccine supply is obtained, VA plans to distribute these vaccines at additional facilities to provide the vaccine to more Veterans and employees.”

Sally Klessens, Margaret’s daughter who lives in Somerville at the family home, said she misses her mother tremendously. Both of them went everywhere together, including to events in Charlestown for veterans and the Old Schoolgirls, and Sally said the virus has weighed heavy on both of them.

“I haven’t seen her except through Plexiglas since March 8,” she said. “She’s been in lockdown and it’s been a nightmare. They can’t go out and they had to take away her daily swimming, which she loved, and she’s just been out there watching her friends die. They wanted her to be the first to get the vaccine and they’re really making a star out of her. She might be 96, but she’s on the ball and sharp as a tack, always a positive thinker and always saying everything is going to be fine. I’m hoping this will open the door for her and maybe get her back to some kind of normal life.”

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has stated in clinical trials the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine was 95% effective in preventing COVID-19 disease. The vaccine is administered as a series of two doses, 21 days apart. The side effects appear similar to those of other vaccines and are short-lived.  

The first order of business for Klessens when she’s cleared to go out, and there is confidence of her immunity, will be a simple breath of fresh air – very literally.

“Well, I think I’ll just go outside and sit in the sunshine and just breath,” she said. “I’ll get that beautiful fresh air that I just miss so much.”

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