A good friend (we will call her Lucy) called me out of the blue the other night. She wanted to talk about this recent blog post of mine. Specifically, she had a very polite bone to pick with me and what she perceived as my interchangeable use of “vaccine skeptical” with “anti-vaccine.” They are not, she told me firmly, always the same thing. A person can be skeptical about parts of the vaccine system, and not totally against the idea of vaccines. Then she proceeded to tell me about her own experience investigating vaccines prior to the birth of her daughter (who is, by the way, a stunning and joyous child).
I think my friend’s story is probably very similar to many other parents out there (I confess, looking back, I had moments of ….GASP….hesitancy on vaccines) and that is why I want to share it here.
Lucy had, like so many of us, longed for a baby for years. She had been told in her late 20s that she may have difficulty conceiving and carrying a child. She watched her friends have weddings and babies and, while she lived her own awesome life, she felt something was missing. But then, JOY! A surprise relationship and an even bigger surprise pregnancy. This miracle baby was going to get all the right vitamins and nutrients. No fast food, no soda pop (unlike my children who lived on Taco Bell, Wendy’s and root beer for several formative weeks). She was on mission to produce the healthiest, most protected, child she could.
She had always assumed she would vaccinate her child, but now that the possibility was really here, she had to convince herself it was the right thing to do. And so, she hit the internet. And then and there, she felt her first pangs of hesitancy or skepticism. Someone said vaccines are full of so many toxins that could be dangerous. What the?! She had just spent the last several months making sure she put nothing fake or “unnatural” past her lips, and now she was supposed to let them inject her baby with formaldehyde? Yes, she was convinced that autism was not caused by vaccines (she had read the gazillion studies refuting this connection) but that did not mean she didn’t think maybe vaccines were behind some other problems: ADD, ADHD, bad grades, peanut allergies. Basically, for any thing that could possibly be wrong and caused by a vaccine, she could find some person swearing it can happen.
And here, she tells me, is where the Mama Bear claws came out. Suddenly, she felt confused about vaccines. Uncertain. Hesitant.
Hearing this from my friend, I was suddenly hit between the eyes with an understanding I had not had before. Of course. DUH. Anyone who is about to embark on raising a child (whether by birth or adoption or whatever), suddenly realizes… holy smokes, I am 100% responsible for that child forever (or at least the next 18 years). Your decisions suddenly have a new weight and import. While you may readily accept an injection your doctor offers you, when it is your tiny new baby, the needle looks big. Really big. And whatever is in that needle seems scary. I get that. I really do.
But, here’s what I love about what Lucy did next. She didn’t just buy into the anti-vaccine ballyhoo and fear mongering that is out there on the internet. She turned to a trusted friend who also happens to be a board certified pediatrician. And she asked this pediatrician what she should do about vaccinating her soon-to-arrive daughter.
Here is what I love about what the pediatrician did. She listened. She did not berate my friend for her hesitance. She did not yell or call her names (I don’t actually know any pediatrician that would do that). She just waited until Lucy had expressed all her worries and concerns and then the pediatrician said “Stop.” All these fears and worries that you have learned on the internet are scaring you but this is what science says: Vaccines are safe. Vaccines do not cause autism. Are there risks with vaccines? Of course. But, the risk of the disease is worse. She explained why each vaccine is given and when and ended by saying that all of her own children were vaccinated. She gently but urgently encouraged my friend to vaccinate.
And guess what? Lucy’s daughter is fully vaccinated. And Lucy is not just a convert, she is a supporter of vaccines.
So, doctor friends, amidst all the office chaos, noncompliant patients, and parents angry when you come into the room 15 minutes past appointment time, take heart. What you say to your patients (yes, even to the random friend that calls up up in the night for advice) can and does make a difference. Even if you can help even one parent come to comfortably choose vaccination for her child, you have done a wonderful service not just to that kid, but to public health in general. So thanks, doc.