Senior profile: To give and to get

Senior profile: To give and to get
Hermitage Northern Virginia resident Peg Bixler received the COVID-19 vaccine on Jan. 14. (Courtesy photo)

By Cody Mello-Klein |

Peg Bixler is no stranger to vaccines, so when doses of Pfizer BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine became available at Hermitage Northern Virginia, her retirement community, Bixler hardly batted an eyelash.

“I wasn’t hesitant. I just wanted to get it and get it over with,” Bixler said.

Born in Clifton, New Jersey in 1926, Bixler was familiar with medicine: Disease and hospitals have long been at the forefront of her mind even before the pandemic.

Bixler’s father had worked as a nurse practitioner in charge of the communicable disease ward at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. Despite her father’s stories of death, food shortages and a lack of bed space – resulting in two men stuffed in a bed sometimes – at an early age, Bixler knew she wanted to work in the medical field.

“I always liked taking care of people,” Bixler said. “Ever since I was 3 years old [my parents] said I told everybody I was going to be a nurse. You don’t go into nursing unless you like it.”

Bixler attended school in Upper Montclair, New Jersey and eventually was able to get the job she had dreamed of since she was 3 years old. Bixler began her eight-year tenure as a nurse at Englewood Health, a hospital in Englewood, New Jersey, in 1944, right in the midst of World War II during a challenging time to be in the medical profession.

“It absolutely was difficult. We didn’t have all the supplies we needed,” Bixler said. “Our hospital was associated with Columbia Presbyterian [Medical Center in New York City] and if they could get some [supplies], we could.”

When Bixler’s husband returned from the war, like a lot of women who had been working during World War II, Bixler transitioned her role as a working woman to that of a mother andhousewife, Bixler said.

Even then, Bixler found a way to take care of people.

In 1952 and 1953, America was facing a different medical challenge: an outbreak of polio. The number of polio cases hit 58,000 and 35,000 in those years respectively, and while the number of deaths that occurred has been eclipsed by those caused by COVID-19, people were worried all the same.

When the first effective polio vaccination campaign commenced in 1955, Bixler was first in line to volunteer and administer the vaccine. Almost a decade before the vaccine became available, Bixler had contracted polio and spent three months in a communicable disease hospital.

“I can still hear the iron lungs running,” Bixler said.

Administering the polio vaccine was a big moment for Bixler. It was also, for those now accustomed to injection-delivered vaccines, a very different experience than Bixler’s recent experience with the COVID-19 vaccine.

“The first time I did it, I volunteered at the school my children were at, and the first vaccine was put on drops of sugar cubes,” Bixler said.

The public sentiment around the vaccine was also quite different than it is today. Instead of the hesitancy and fear that some people have expressed when it comes to the COVID-19 vaccine, families were eager to get their children inoculated, partly because it was not administered via a needle.

“All parents wanted their children to receive the vaccine and feared polio,” Bixler said. “… Parents and children got vaccinated right away.”

In her 40s, Bixler returned to nursing, circulating between three hospitals in Passaic, New Jersey before moving down to the greater Washington D.C. area in 1975. Bixler volunteered in the Kennedy Center gift shop for 45 years after moving to the area.

After her move south, Bixler continued to give back to the veterans who had fought during World War II. She was one of more than a dozen men and women who volunteered at Fort Belvoir as part of the Honor Flight program run by the nonprofit Honor Flight Network. As part of the program, veterans are transported to Washington D.C. to visit the war memorial of their respective wars.

Bixler volunteered as an aide for some of the World War II veterans who were brought to the area to visit the World War II Memorial.

In the years since moving to the area and retiring from nursing, Bixler has lived her life to the fullest, she said. She has travelled to every single continent, including Antarctica, although she plays down the accomplishment.

“I’ve been to 199 countries, so I’ve had a wonderful life. Sometimes I get annoyed but nothing much you can do about it,” Bixler said.

With the COVID-19 pandemic still hitting new peak levels of infection, Bixler has a lot to be annoyed about, but, like many residents at Hermitage, she was excited to hear news that the vaccine would be coming to the local retirement community. Bixler was one of 103 Hermitage residents to get vaccinated on Jan. 14.

Although she’s long since retired as a nurse and is now on the other side of the vaccine administering process, Bixler continues to help people.