“It all kind of came full circle,” says Emma Butzer. “It all culminated here, in her giving me the vaccine.”

Emma, a Laker grad who works as a nurse in Minneapolis, recently received her first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine -- a memorable event for anyone in this historic pandemic era, but especially so for her, since she rolled up her sleeve for someone special that day: Her own younger sister, Anya Butzer, was the nurse who gave her the shot.

“It was so surreal,” recalls Anya. “I’ve looked up to Emma forever and kind of followed in her tracks to become a nurse, so to be able to give that to her was really cool.”

The two have been on the frontlines of COVID since it arrived in Minnesota a year ago. Emma is a registered nurse at Boynton Health on the University of Minnesota campus, and manages the mass COVID vaccination clinics there. Anya works just blocks away, as a nurse in the busy COVID Unit at M Health Fairview University of Minnesota Medical Center; she’s also been helping out part-time at the mass COVID vaccination clinics.

Related stories:

WDAY logo
listen live
watch live
Newsletter signup for email alerts

Anya happened to be on shift at the clinic the day of her big sister’s big moment, and so the two of them took the opportunity to make the already memorable event, even more so. Getting vaccinated, they said in separate interviews with the Tribune, has been a big deal for both of them, physically and emotionally, injecting some joy and relief into an otherwise hectic and heartbreaking year.

While they know the COVID fight is far from over, they said the vaccines have given them and their patients “a light at the end of the tunnel.”

“People are crying, they’re taking selfies, they’re wishing they could hug us,” said Emma of what nurses are seeing and hearing at the vaccination clinics. “We kind of chuckle, because no one’s usually ever that happy to get a needle stuck in their arm. So this is pretty fun.”

“It’s been a glimmer of hope for people,” Anya said.

The sisters’ story has spread across the state, thanks in part to a blog written by their older brother, Bryce, a public relations specialist for Blue Cross Blue Shield Minnesota. Twin Cities television station KSTP-TV caught wind of it from there, and interviewed Emma and Anya for a segment on the Feb. 3 evening news.

“I wanted to tell my sisters’ story to help inform people about the unfortunate realities of COVID-19, while also providing hope for the future,” said Bryce of why he decided to write the blog. “Not everyone has firsthand experience treating COVID-19 patients or administering vaccines. Masks and vaccines are our weapons. Now is the time for all of us to pull together and defeat this virus once and for all.”

The recent media attention has been “a little bit of a surprise,” said Anya, but she considers it “a positive twist to what’s going on.”

‘It’s been pretty wild’

Anya knows “what’s going on” better than most. The 24-year-old has been right in the thick of things from the start, working 12-hour overnight shifts on a busy COVID floor in the heart of Minnesota's biggest city.

When the virus hit, the hospital floor Anya works on was quickly transformed from a general medicine floor into a COVID Unit. Her nightly routines changed. Her caregiving priorities changed. Everything changed.

“Especially at the beginning, there was so much that we didn’t know,” Anya said. “The virus is so unpredictable, and we never knew what was going to happen with each patient.”

Some patients would come in and leave for home soon after, on the mend. Others would rapidly decline and be transferred to the intensive care unit. There was no telling who might get better and who might get worse.

New limits on the number of people allowed in a patient’s room meant Anya and her fellow nurses were tasked with cleaning and other job duties normally assigned to nursing assistants. And with no outside visitors allowed, nurses started spending more time at the bedside, offering extra company and comfort to otherwise isolated patients.

At the pandemic’s peak, Anya said, patient beds were hard to come by -- not only for COVID patients, but all patients.

“Our hospital was just full all the time at that point,” she recalled. “We stopped having beds...which was scary. We had to find hospitals to take the patients. I’m so grateful it’s getting better now. I’ve seen a decrease in the number of our COVID patients, but there were months where it was just nonstop.”

The pandemic changed things for Emma, too, making her feel a greater sense of urgency and necessity in her job, and doubling her work schedule from the usual 30 hours a week up to 60.

Emma’s office at Boynton coordinates the public health programs on the University of Minnesota campus, such as an annual mass vaccination clinic during flu season that gets about 20,000 flu shots into the arms of the university’s staff and students every year.

This year, her office was given the additional task of developing and coordinating mass COVID vaccination clinics.

“We have a lot of the backbone and staff and supplies and procedures and programs in place to run a mass vaccination clinic,” she said. “But the COVID vaccine is a lot different than the flu shot, so there was a lot of planning that had to go into it.”

After two months of careful planning, special training sessions, and implementing new protocols, Emma’s office held its first COVID vaccination clinic on January 11, administering initial doses of the vaccine to frontline staff at Boynton as well as students and instructors who see patients in person (such as health sciences students and dental students, among many others).

“It’s been pretty wild,” Emma said of the experience so far. “We’ve done 2,500 vaccinations to date (as of mid-February), but we have the capacity to do 1,000-2,000 per day... It’s still a matter of supply versus demand.”

Emma’s efforts are vital to stopping the spread of the virus on the U of M campus. It’s a more behind-the-scenes role than her sister has, but she said she likes being on the preventative side of healthcare, “helping people maintain their health so they can go to work...and not get into the same situation many of Anya’s patients have been in.”

A catchphrase commonly used around Emma’s office is, “Do it for the herd.” She and the 50 or so nurses employed by her office bust that slogan out whenever they’re promoting or advocating for COVID vaccination. A little cow logo goes along with it.

“I say to anyone on the fence about vaccines: Do your research yourself, with reliable sources, and make that decision based on facts and evidence,” Emma said. “And if you do get the vaccine, know that you’re doing it for others just as much, if not more, than you are for yourself. It’s special to be a part of that, to know you’re contributing to that herd immunity.”

‘I feel like it was my calling’

Emma and Anya both discovered their love for the nursing profession as teenagers in Detroit Lakes.

Emma got a job as a nursing assistant at Ecumen nursing home while she was still in high school. She liked it, and that inspired Anya to follow in her footsteps a few years later.

“I feel like it was my calling to become a nurse,” Anya said. “I had a passion for health care and I always wanted to make a difference in someone’s life.”

Emma, after graduating from Detroit Lakes High School in 2010, applied to the University of Minnesota and was accepted into the school’s nursing program. Anya joined her there after graduating in 2014.

The whole Butzer family attended the U of M, Anya said with a laugh: “We’re a bunch of gophers.”

After college, both Emma and Anya pursued nursing careers in the metro area, and they’ve always remained close. They haven’t seen each other as often as usual this past year, but still talk regularly. When they do meet up in person, they’re very careful about wearing masks and only get together outdoors.

They make it back to Detroit Lakes from time to time to visit friends and see their parents, Jane and Andy Butzer, who still live here. Emma is engaged to be married this summer and hopes to have her bachelorette party in town, if the pandemic is well enough under control by then.

They see their brother, Bryce, as often as possible -- which hasn’t been very often at all in recent months. Bryce and his wife welcomed twin girls right before the start of the pandemic, so visits have been limited. Emma said she and Anya are looking forward to being “real aunties” to the twins after the pandemic is over.

“My biggest fear was that I’d get the virus and give it to a family member and they’d become severely ill,” said Anya, whose worries have eased a little since getting her second dose of the vaccine. “We’re trying to adapt, to still be able to see our family but trying to be safe about it, because you need your family to lean on, for support.”

Emma became a nurse practitioner in May but said she has no plans to leave her current role at Boynton anytime soon: “I’ve been so submerged in this work and this project and in getting the university community vaccinated, and I want to be a part of that.”

Anya wants to continue to meet the moment, too. She’s been in it from the start, and plans to see it through to the finish… however far away that may be.

“It’s so crazy to me that we’re still doing this,” she said of being a year into the pandemic. “Nobody thought that it would last this long.”