My mom was an anti-vaxxer before that was even a thing. I was born in the ‘70s, when few people had even heard of autism and most parents remembered their own experiences with childhood illnesses (like measles) before there were vaccines to prevent them. As part of a generation that lived through polio, most parents enthusiastically vaccinated their children against everything they could. Why wouldn’t they? Vaccines just weren’t the controversial issue they are today. Except to my mom.
Like her own mother, my mom didn’t trust doctors. Her reasons were complicated and unique to her childhood experiences. She grew up in a rural area where most people weren’t educated, and tended to mistrust authority. The experiences she did have with doctors (whom she later described as insensitive and frightening) were extremely negative. So my mom learned to resist change and think that things should be done “the way they always had.” My grandmother, her mother, was the same way. They thought that vaccines were, at best, a money-making scheme, and, at worst, a sinister government plot to inject something nefarious into the bodies of innocent children.
I lived with my paternal grandmother for a few years when I was little. She had me vaccinated during that time, but by the time I went to live with my mother in another state, my vaccination schedule wasn’t complete. I wasn’t completely unvaccinated, but I wasn’t adequately vaccinated and I wouldn’t be until I was an adult. Because my mother believed she was protecting me and my younger sister, we didn’t go to doctors. Like ever. She fed us nourishing foods, let us play outside every day, and encouraged us to eat vegetables and get lots of exercise. Our health was very important to her and part of keeping us well, to her, meant no vaccines, or at least no more vaccines. Luckily, herd immunity was very strong back then, and neither one of us caught anything serious. At least, we didn’t think we did.
One winter, when I was in middle school, I got really, really sick. For months I coughed painfully, gasping, wheezing and unable to catch my breath. I suffered. Sometimes I would cough until I threw up. My mom said she recognized the distinct sound of my cough.
“You’ve got whooping cough,” she told me.
I didn’t know what that was; I thought she was just referring to what I sounded like, because, yeah, when I tried to breathe in during one of my many violent coughing fits, I made a weird whooping noise.
“We all had that as kids. I remember it well,” my mother said, but since she didn’t take me to the doctor, I never received a formal diagnosis, or more importantly, treatment. I just fought through and after a while, it went away.
After that, whenever I caught even the slightest hint of a cold, the coughing would return. It was painful, embarrassing, and unpleasant. During the colder, drier months, I’d start coughing and couldn’t breathe when I laid down. It was miserable, and I dreaded winter because of it.
As soon as I was an adult and living on my own, I went to the doctor. Actually, I went to a lot of doctors, but none of them ever mentioned anything about vaccines. I seemed to get bronchitis very easily, which was attributed to something called cough-variant asthma. But this condition was chronic and usually a result of childhood asthma, which I hadn’t had … so how did I get it?
One doctor asked me if it was possible I’d ever had whooping cough. “But probably not, right, because you would have been vaccinated?” he asked.
When I told him that, no, I actually hadn’t been completely vaccinated as a child, he was shocked.
He explained that it was very, very possible, likely even, that I really did have whooping cough (also known as pertussis), and that it had contributed to my asthma, which I will probably have for the rest of my life. Luckily, I now live in the heat and humidity of Florida, so my symptoms aren’t nearly as bad as when I lived up North, but still, it sucks, and each case of the sniffles sends me running for the albuterol inhaler.
A lot of parents are afraid that vaccines will damage their children, but it’s important to understand that sometimes, not vaccinating them can be worse. It’s probable that my lack of adequate protection against pertussis made me susceptible to the disease that damaged my lungs. Unfortunately, I will never be able to know for sure, because my mother didn’t take me to the doctor to find out. However, the doctor who suggested this seemed to think this was the most likely scenario. Had my mother had me vaccinated, I truly believe it could have been prevented. At the very least, if I had gotten the right shots, I’d know for sure that it wasn’t the pertussis.
I don’t blame my mother for what happened to me, and I’m not angry with her because I know she thought she was doing the right thing.
Instead, I blame fear and ignorance.
As an adult entering college, I chose to receive all the necessary vaccinations (and then some) that I hadn’t received as a child, and I’m glad I did. I never had a negative reaction to a shot, a nasal mist or an oral vaccine, and now I can rest assured that I won’t get sick or worse, get someone else’s child, who may not be able to be vaccinated, sick as well.
Still, the way I was raised affected me deeply. It’s hard to go against what you’ve known your whole life. When my daughter was born, I struggled enormously with the decision to vaccinate her. What if my mother was right all along? What if I inadvertently harmed my innocent baby by getting her shots? It was terrifying and a decision I didn’t take lightly.
As I stood in the bathroom, sucking in the mist from my inhaler, waiting for it to relieve the pain in my chest, I knew what I had to do. If I could, in any way, prevent my daughter from experiencing what I had, or worse, I would. Today, I’m happy to report, she is a happy, healthy, fully-vaccinated, four-year-old. Pretty soon, we’re going on vacation to Disneyland together, unworried about the current measles scare, knowing first that we are protected, and second, that we are also protecting others with our immunity. We plan to have a fantastic time.
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