Because of his status as a healthcare worker, Steven Arsht, an orthopedic surgeon at Mount Sinai Health System in New York City, was the first in his family to get a COVID-19 vaccine. As he moved forward in line in January, he found himself thinking of his brother-in-law, Louis Sarrel, who died of the disease last spring. After receiving his vaccination, Arsht texted a selfie to his family. “Louis and I usually took tequila shots together,” he wrote. “I really wish he had been here to take this shot with me, too.”
Back home that evening, Arsht couldn’t shake the feeling that he had a responsibility to Sarrel and others who died in the pandemic to do everything in his power to encourage vaccination. Sitting his family down, he says, he told them, “‘You know what, we have to get the word out to people that this is something very special and important.’”
In late January, Arsht launched This Jab’s for You, a social media campaign aimed at encouraging widespread vaccination. The campaign is simple: Social media users on Facebook and Instagram tag their vaccination photo with #thisjabsforyou and dedicate their shot to someone lost in or impacted by the pandemic. Arsht dedicated his first vaccination to Sarrel and his second to his parents, who he hasn’t seen in person in more than a year.
The goal of This Jab’s for You is to bring comfort to others who have lost loved ones, and to the many more who have been impacted in ways big and small by the pandemic. More than that, through positive reinforcement, Arsht hopes the campaign will encourage as many people as possible to get vaccinated.
The motivation to encourage people to get vaccinated is the same as the one that pushed him to become a doctor: helping others. “That’s what makes me tick and happy,” Arsht says. Growing up in Wilmington, Delaware, he idolized his family pediatrician and would perform surgery on his food at dinner. In junior high, he tore his ACL playing baseball and began regularly visiting an orthopedic surgeon. His doctor advised that he quit sports, but Arsht continued playing basketball. By 10th grade, he had had three knee surgeries.
Rather than feel discouraged, the experience with his own injuries made Arsht want to go into sports medicine. He began volunteering after school at a pediatric orthopedic hospital and a local ER. During his sophomore year at George Washington University, he qualified for a special early selection program that guaranteed his admission to medical school and encouraged him and other participants to design their own personalized curriculums that included courses outside of those traditionally taken by pre-med majors. “The purpose of the program was to allow doctors to become more well-rounded and cultured by not focusing solely on the sciences,” Arsht says. He decided to major in psychology and art history, and he built in enough free time to be able to volunteer in a local soup kitchen.
After completing his orthopedic residency, also at George Washington University, Arsht decided to move to New York City for one year to study adult reconstruction in sports medicine. He arrived with his wife, who was pregnant with their first child, in August 2001 — just weeks before 9/11. The experience deeply affected the couple. “We realized that life was truly short, and it would be nice to stay in the New York metro area to be closer to her family in New Jersey,” says Arsht, who this year celebrates 20 years practicing in Manhattan.
When the pandemic overtook New York City last April, Arsht immediately volunteered his services in the ICU. “I experienced firsthand the death and devastation that this virus had upon our community,” he says. At the same time, Sarrel, who was in remission from lymphoma, came down with COVID-19. Sarrel spent three weeks in the ICU. Arsht and Sarrel’s wife and son looked on from a small window as Sarrel died. “We could not hug him, or kiss him, or hold his hand,” Arsht says. “But we were grateful that we could see him one last time.”
Sarrel’s death greatly impacted Arsht and his family. “He really was like a brother and best friend to me,” Arsht says. “In everything I do, I’m always very serious, but he would always find a way to lighten up what was going on and just make me smile.”
So far, Arsht has spread the word about his campaign through local media in New Jersey and by contacting his medical school class and the Mount Sinai healthcare system, as well as reaching out to many others. Representatives at Mount Sinai recently agreed to a formal collaboration in their New York City and Florida facilities, Arsht says, and plan to encourage other healthcare systems to do the same to try to spread the campaign nationally.
“Each vaccinated person will be one less life that this virus can take from us, and one less family that will have to live through what my family and more than two million others around the world have had to endure,” Arsht says. “We need people to roll up their sleeves and get this jab.”