On Friday morning, I popped into the garage for a moment to run some laundry. When I opened the door to the house half a minute later, I could hear Charlotte coughing. She sounded like she was choking. Like she couldn’t breathe.
MOMMA!, she said with a note of confusion as she wiped blood away from her mouth. MY LIPS ARE COLORING MY HAND, MOMMA!
And that is when I called the pediatrician.
When we arrived at the doctor’s office, we were immediately ushered into an isolated waiting room. I’m sorry about this, the nurse said as she closed the door behind her. Precautions, you know.
I smiled and nodded. If it were my kid in the waiting room, I’d want them to take precautions. I understand, I told the nurse. And I did.
The pediatrician came in and at first all he heard from Charlotte were short clusters of coughing. Twenty, thirty, forty seconds. Huh, he said. It sounds like whooping cough, but she just isn’t fully whooping. Maybe she has a croup virus and a small respiratory infection instead.
But when he moved to take her temperature, she began to cry. And when she cried, the full whooping cough started. It stretched on for an eternity, me clutching her to my breast, saying It’s okay, darling, it’s okay. Just breathe. Relax. It’s okay.
OH SHIT, the doctor said.
He left the room and came back with a second opinion. He approached Charlotte with the thermometer again. Sorry mom, he said to me. I just need her to cough. And she did. And when she coughed, she whooped. The two doctors stood there for a minute, arms crossed against their chest, listening. They watched as she coughed. They watched as she retched. They watched as I wiped blood off her hand, off her lips, as her eyes grew heavy while she suckled at my breast afterward for comfort.
We have to test to be sure, one said, but I’d bet my life on whooping cough. The other nodded. Definitely, he said. Don’t worry about the blood, they reassured me. When someone coughs that violently, it isn’t abnormal for their throat to be a little agitated. But if it gets worse, let us know.
They poked a hole in my daughter’s skin and took her blood. They tilted her head back and swabbed her nose. They opened her mouth and swabbed her cheek. They enclosed the swabs in slender plastic tubes and slapped stickers on the outside. STAT, the stickers read.
It’s a good thing you’re still nursing her, the second pediatrician said. Most adults who catch whooping cough never even know the difference. It’s like a bad cold or maybe just a sore throat. We can give her steroids or antibiotics, but right now you’re her healthiest line of defense. The best thing you can do is to give her as much of your milk as you possibly can.
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Charlotte is okay. By Saturday morning, we’d made the house so warm and humid that our windows were dripping. The humidity helped enormously to relieve her symptoms. We gave her two baths, each ninety minutes long in steaming water with the wall heater running in the bathroom.
She slept for uncharacteristically long stretches and when she was awake we followed orders and engaged in calm activities to keep her from physically stressing her lungs. We gave her chamomile tea and pulled a bird out of the freezer to boil down for chicken soup. I nursed her seven or eight times each day and several times through the night. Her fever broke sometime Saturday night.
On Sunday morning, I received an e-mail from a friend of ours whose unvaccinated child was positively diagnosed through a laboratory with whooping cough a week ago.
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I usually consider myself a fair and level-headed person, if a little hot-headed and stubborn from time to time. I try very hard to respect other peoples’ decisions, perspectives, and beliefs. I want to give people the benefit of the doubt and I want to believe that most parents are loving people who make the best choices they can for their children.
But I am currently really struggling with this. I vaccinated my child against pertussis and everything that we know at this point indicates that Charlotte, like at least one other of her relatives, is in a minority that is physically incapable of building a resistance to the disease. The reasons that blanket inoculation is recommended for diseases like whooping cough are many, but one of them is this: children like Charlotte who cannot form an immunity to one specific disease or another CANNOT BE PROTECTED FROM THAT DISEASE unless other people do not transmit it to them. Herd immunity keeps safe the small fraction of individuals who are too weak or young to receive vaccinations, who have negative reactions to a vaccine, or whose biology prevents them from building a resistance to a specific disease.
That woman? I understand what she was going through when she decided not to immunize her child. I understand how difficult it is to inject your child with a cocktail of toxins, preservatives, and antigens. I understand that the current AAP vaccination schedule is terrifyingly aggressive and that it is impossible to know whether or not your child’s individual biochemistry is going to react poorly to some aspect or another of a vaccination.
I understand the worry that vaccinations in conjunction with other abuses of the medical establishment, such as over-prescription of drugs, might be contributing to weaker immune systems. I understand how hard it is to make heads or tails of the pharmaceutical industry’s intentions and deeds. I understand the concern that unnecessary vaccines do more harm than good. I understand the frustration that vaccine standards aren’t higher, that vaccinations are not more widely studied and that the public has so little access to information about their composition and potential side effects. I even understand the belief that shots are a violation of a child’s right to bodily integrity.
And the thing is: I didn’t always feel the way I feel right now. Up until this weekend, I really believed that every parent had to make the decision that worked best for their family.
But no matter how much I identify with the concerns of a parent who opts out of vaccinating their child, I am angry.
It occurs to me now, while I sit here listening to my child wheezing while she sleeps, that when that woman decided not to vaccinate her child she wasn’t making a decision that only affected her family. She made a decision that affected mine. She made a decision that may have long-term effects to my daughter’s health.
I am trying to understand, I really am. I’m trying to remember that she made the decision she did because she loves her kid. I’m trying to remember that her reasons for not vaccinating are as viable as my reasons for vaccinating - and I’m trying to bear in mind that I am not privy to the reasons why she made her decision. I’m trying to remember that Charlotte would have still been susceptible to whooping cough regardless of whether or not this child was in our lives. I’m trying to remember that this mother could not have known that her child would contract this disease. I’m trying to remember that as fired up as I feel right now in favor of vaccination, I’d feel equally fired up against the pressure to vaccinate if my daughter were lying in bed enduring a severe negative reaction from a vaccine. I’m trying not to place blame for something that, quite simply, happens. I’m trying to remember that the reason I’m upset is probably ultimately because I want Charlotte to be healthy and not because I think everybody should conform to my choices. I’m trying to remember that if I want people to respect my parental authority, then I need to respect theirs.
But at the end of the day, I keep coming back to this. I am doing everything in my power to keep my child safe. I don’t want to inject Charlotte or myself with crap, but I do it because I want to keep other at-risk individuals safe too.
And right now, I feel betrayed and more than a little disappointed that other people don’t feel that the health and safety of my child is as important as the health and safety of theirs.