Could she give shots? Adilene Ambriz Ayala was choosing between becoming a pharmacy technician or a nurse, and that question made the decision easy.
"I was scared of needles," Ambriz said.
Today, the San Jacinto College pharmacy technician alumna fills prescription behind a Walgreens pharmacy counter. But this spring, the question popped up again: Was she willing to pick up a needle?
For the first time, public health officials were enlisting and training pharmacy technicians to administer COVID-19 vaccines in an emergency setting. Could Ambriz overcome her needle phobia to contribute to the mass immunization effort?
Lifetime of change
If Ambriz knows about anything, it's change and challenge.
She came to the U.S. before her 10th birthday. After her parents' divorce, she, her mom, brothers, and sisters squished into a three-bedroom apartment in California with her grandparents and four uncles. They finally relocated to Houston to gain more elbow room.
Houston proved her path to San Jac. Galena Park High School staff encouraged her to check out the local college and helped her apply.
In 2016, accounting in mind, she started taking her basics at the North Campus. Then she learned about the pharmacy technician program, which would combine her interests in math, science, and health. It could also jump-start a stable career.
"I didn't want to be that long in school and not working in a career," she said.
In fall 2019, Ambriz started her pharmacy tech classes. The program challenged and inspired her.
"They're not babying you," she said.
It was a grueling schedule. Drive her mom to work. Attend classes full time. Work a full shift herself. Do homework. Catch five or six hours of sleep. Repeat.
From pharmacology to anatomy and physiology courses, Ambriz memorized hundreds of medications and their effects on the body, as well as each body part's function.
As an English language learner, she sometimes struggled to grasp the material and pronounce the drugs. But her professors encouraged and praised her for her persistence.
Program director Irene Villatoro had never met a more determined student.
"She would come into my office after exams to review her mistakes and have one-on-one tutoring," Villatoro said. "She encountered challenges, but they never once got in the way of her mission."
In the program's lab area, instructors drilled Ambriz with multitasking scenarios, having her fill prescriptions, take calls, and interact with customers all at once. She got peppered with questions and demands: "How long is it going to take?" "I need my medicine now!"
The realistic training hit home once she was working behind a real pharmacy counter.
Obstacle after obstacle
Wrapping up the program in summer 2020, Ambriz logged most internship hours at Walgreens. The pharmacist there liked her work ethic and later called to offer her a technician role. She could train until she got certified.
But that's when the challenges piled up. Ambriz had a 90-day window to take the state exam after she registered. Because of COVID-19, her required DACA renewal (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) was delayed.
As a trainee, she also tested pharmacy customers for COVID-19. Even following all safety protocols, she got exposed to the virus, and she and her family tested positive for COVID-19.
The exam window seemed to be closing. Sore all over, chills coming and going, she curled up on her bed two days, not wanting food but forcing herself to eat to keep her strength. It took her two weeks to recover.
"It wasn't too bad, thank God," she said. "[But] I had trouble breathing at night — felt like someone was pressing on my chest."
Just when it seemed everything was working against her, the pieces finally came together. She recovered, had her DACA renewal in hand, and got an extension on the exam. On Dec. 1, she finally took and passed her certification test.
All hands on deck
Ambriz was working as a certified pharmacy technician only a few months when she heard the news: Health officials wanted all hands on deck to help vaccinate the public against COVID-19. This circle had widened to include pharmacy technicians — a first.
"What do you think about getting certified to give vaccines?" her supervisor asked.
Two years earlier, she might have shaken her head. Now she reflected on everything she had overcome in 2020, including catching the virus herself. Taking a deep breath, she replied, "If you give me the chance to get certified, I'll get certified."
Ambriz attended a one-day vaccine class and completed her CPR certification. Now she administers Pfizer-BioNTech and Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccines during every work shift.
"I feel proud and accomplished," she said. "Like I said, I was scared of needles. Now it's weird to say I was scared."
Ambriz's career circle keeps widening. She loves her work, and Walgreens is currently training her for a senior technician role.
More pharmacy certifications? Nursing? She still hasn't decided what she'll pursue next. But she knows this: She wants to be the first in her family to earn a degree and wants to help her mom, who has supported the family on her own since the divorce.
For now, it's enough that Ambriz is contributing to the fight against COVID-19.
"I was in school last year, and now I'm giving vaccines," she said.
I feel proud and accomplished. Like I said, I was scared of needles. Now it's weird to say I was scared.