Vaccine vial became a treasured ornament

Tracy Schuhmacher
Rochester Democrat and Chronicle

GENEVA -- Every year at Christmastime, August Deimel pulls out eight Harry and David boxes that originally belonged to his mother. They originally held pears, but the indentations have proven perfect for cradling fragile ornaments from home to home over the past several decades.

The first ornament he hangs on his family's Christmas tree is a souvenir from his birth. And in 2020, it has even more meaning than ever.

For one thing, this was his first Christmas without his mom, Betty Deimel, who died on May 21 from complications of Alzheimer's disease. 

And the other: it's a tiny vaccine vial, tied with a red bow. Its parallels to 2020 are obvious, as the COVID-19 vaccine makes its way across the United States and the world. In April of 1982, when Deimel was born, the vaccine was for hepatitis B. His mom had been diagnosed with the disease, and he and his father were at risk. 

To Deimel, that vial ornament has always represented family, resilience and sacrifice. But this year, it fills him with gratitude for the researchers and health professionals that help keep people safe.

Family history told through a vial

August Deimel of Geneva -- former head winemaker at Keuka Spring Vineyards in Penn Yan -- holds up a hepatitis B vaccine vial that has hung on his family's Christmas tree since he was a baby.

August was born to Lionel and Betty Deimel in North Carolina. "They were kind of trying to make it work. They had just bought their first house," he said.

Lionel Deimel was working at his first tenure-track position at North Carolina State University. Betty Deimel was a political activist who had marched with Dr. Martin Luther King and was a member of the National Women's Political Caucus. “She was somebody who had a lot of interests and really was always looking to make a difference," Deimel said. "She had a sense of wanting to impact the world.”

When Betty Deimel fell sick right after August was born, the presumptive diagnosis was hepatitis B. Doctors recommend that August and Lionel Deimel get the vaccine. The problem was that it was very new, and very expensive.

Hepatitis B is a common, serious liver infection. According to a Democrat and Chronicle article published on April 25, 1982, an estimated 200,000 people were infected in the U.S. yearly, and 10,000 were hospitalized. Close to 5,000 people died annually. (The number of COVID-19 cases eclipses these numbers, with more than 17 million cases and well over 300,000 deaths.)

August Deimel, of Geneva, has hung this hepatitis B vaccine vial on his family's Christmas tree since he was a baby.

The hepatitis-B vaccine was licensed in 1981, but it would take until the fall of 1982 for it to become widely available. In April 1982, when August Deimel was born, heath officials were grappling with issues like how to get the vaccine to the people who needed it the most. Another issue was its expense; each injection cost at least $29, and a series of three shots was recommended. (Adjusted for inflation, $29 in 1982 is worth nearly $80 today.) 

August Deimel, of Geneva, holds up a hepatitis B vaccine vial that has hung on his family's Christmas tree since he was a baby.

That meant vaccines for two would come to at least $58, and the series of three would amount to $274 ($477 in today's dollars). It was more that they could afford.

But the dosage was a function of weight. Lionel Deimel was a slim man, and August Deimel was a baby. The theory was that a single vial could provide just enough vaccine to protect both of them. The couple spent a chunk of what would have been their Christmas fund on the vaccine. Betty Deimel took home the vial, added a bow, and hung it on the Christmas tree that year. 

The irony of the story is that doctors later determined that Betty Deimel didn't have hepatitis B after all. Lionel and August Deimel did not need to complete the series of three shots. But the story would be told every year as the vial was taken out of the Harry and David box and placed on the Christmas tree. 

"It’s such a bizarre episode in our family life," Deimel said. "I don’t know if we’d still talk about it if we didn’t have the vaccine vial.” 

Betty Deimel holds a young August Deimel in this undated photo.

Deimel now lives in Geneva, and is a respected winemaker in New York's Finger Lakes wine region, former head winemaker at Keuka Spring Vineyards in Penn Yan. He looks forward to taking the COVID-19 vaccine.

"I don’t imagine I’m going to be very high on the list, but the moment my number comes up, I’ll be there," he said. When he gets it, he'd like to ask for the vial, even though he's not sure his request would be accommodated.

"I’d love to put a COVID vaccine vial on the tree," he said. He envisions it spurring memories, conversations and stories about the crazy year that was 2020.

"That’s what’s great about ornaments," he said. "They are a way of sparking family history.”

Note: An official from URMC said vaccine injections are prepared in the pharmacy, and vials are unlikely to make their way into patient care areas.