It’s almost fall, and that means colds and other various forms of sickness will start to be a regular occurrence in my home. My kids will make the inevitable trip to the doctors time and time again over the next few months. This is also the time of year when the doctors will remind me to get my children vaccinated for the flu. And one can’t turn around without seeing some new story in a paper or on TV about how dangerous the flu is and how important it is to vaccinate.
I realize this officially puts me in old-lady-mindset territory, but I can’t help but think: When did everything become so deadly? Is it because I’m a mom now and I worry more about my children’s health and mortality than I do my own? Or did viruses suddenly ratchet themselves up a notch to become public enemy number one? Those antibiotic-resistant superbugs aside, sometimes I have a hard time believing things are really that bad.
My mother was a nurse. So if you brought home a sickness in my family it was treated with a matter-of-factness that felt almost reassuring. Instead of feeling scared, I usually felt like things were under control when my mom was in charge. The cold wash cloths for fever, the flat glasses of Coke for an upset stomach; all were administered with an almost business-like calm that made me think being sick was no big deal and feeling better was inevitable.
You could tell my mother three or four symptoms and she’d diagnose you with in seconds. Intestinal bug? Strep throat? Conjuctivitis? She knew almost immediately and quickly began making the arrangements to either get you to the doctors or start treatment at home.
“Well, sounds like you’ve got yourself an ear infection. Let me call the doctor,” her tone so the opposite of unnerving, I sunk into it like a comfortable old chair.
Over the years, I took to diagnosing myself and bringing the details to her for review.
“My throat is sore and I’ve got white patches when I look in with the flashlight. Strep, right?”
“Sure sounds that way. Let’s have a look.”
I loved the affirmation of getting my illnesses right. As if I, too, had some kind of medical degree conferred upon me simply by extension of being her daughter. Her approving nod made me feel smart. Other times, if she didn’t like the sound of my potential ailment, she would practically startle me into feeling better.
“I broke out in hives after eating this Snickers. Do you think I could be allergic to peanuts?” I once asked her.
“Allergic to peanuts?! Well, I hope to god you’re not! That is a HELL of an allergy to deal with! You literally won’t be able to eat anything. There are peanuts in every damn food there is.”
And then there was the morning I felt tired and achy and tried to diagnose myself with mononucleosis.
“I feel like I’m doing to die. I think it’s mono,” I told her, hoping it would mean I could get out of school.
“Mono?!” she gasped. “You better pray to the Holy Father you DON’T have mono. Let me tell you: If you have mono, in a few days you’ll feel so bad you’ll wish you WERE dead. It’s THAT goddamned bad. Now get up.”
As time went on and I went to college, I took to calling her up for diagnoses for friends, too. A dorm mate’s mystery rash. Another friend’s bladder infection. She was almost always spot on in her assessments — even from afar.
“Tell her to go to the infirmary and get an antibiotic. It should help within a few hours.”
Calm, steady reassurance: I loved it and so did my friends. What was better, was my inquiries could be made at almost all hours of the day and night. At midnight, my parents were still up, drinking heavily-caffeinated cups of black tea and watching Johnny Carson. I could put in a call for review on someone’s pink-eye at 1:00 am and she would hardly even notice the time.
“Hey, Honey!” she’d answer brightly, her Massachusetts accent heavy. “What’s up?” she’d ask, as she’d settle in to devour every detail, David Letterman just getting started in the background.
The only times that were really off-limits for medical calls were the hours between about 2am to 6am– unless of course it was an emergency. Like the time I thought I had tapeworm, for instance.
“I’m literally starving all the time,” I told her at 2:30am. “But, I haven’t gained an ounce.”
“Well,” she sighed, obviously annoyed at having been woken. “Have you been eating trash?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, have you been digging in the garbage and eating rotten, raw meat? Because those would be the only circumstances under which I could imagine a person would have tapeworm in this country. At least in this day and age,” she said, as I seethed on the other end about her complete lack of concern.
“Trying adding more protein to your diet,” she offered right before we hung up.
When my mother was 70 years old, she retired, finally, after 45 years of working in various roles as a nurse and health care expert. She walked the track with my father every day, she went on lots of group vacations with other senior citizens, and she got her first flu shot, as the doctor’s recommend for people over 60.
Within days after receiving that flu shot, she developed a condition called pericarditis; an inflammation around the heart. And within a few weeks, her body was so swollen with fluid that she could barely walk around her small kitchen without feeling nauseous from lack of oxygen. By the following summer, she was dead.
Whether her condition was triggered by a reaction to the flu vaccination has never been confirmed. She had been through chemotherapy several years earlier, and some of the doctors who treated her thought perhaps her heart was weakened by the chemo, which may have lead to the swelling. No one would ever confirm outright that the vaccination was a factor. To this day, I am not sure if it was either. But the idea of it haunts me.
What also troubles me was the way things went down in the end. For some reason, my mother was told by our family doctor that she could not get an appointment for several weeks. She, being of her generation, didn’t push it. She stayed home and suffered and waited. But this time, it was a big deal. She was very, very sick. And I can only imagine the damage that was done to her body as she waited for medical attention. In fact, it was two months of waiting before she finally collapsed in her home and was taken to the hospital.
I want to go back to that time and ask myself what I was thinking. Why wasn’t I pushing her to get in to a doctor? To go to an ER? To do any of the things I would insist on for my own children if they were so very sick, as she had been. This time, she could not offer me calm, reassurance that all would be OK. And for reasons I still cannot grasp, those of us who loved her seemed paralyzed, too ignorant, or perhaps in my own instance, too self-absorbed, to intervene.
So, every flu season, I struggle. I know how bad, even deadly, the flu can be. But, as you can see: I am tortured not only by the possibilities of what might happen if I don’t vaccinate, but also by the idea of how much I stand to lose if I do.
*Author’s note: I wrote this piece in 2008. Since that time, I have changed my feelings about the flu vaccine. While all vaccines hold some level of risk, after a near-fatal episode of pneumonia in 2012, which was triggered by the flu, I have decided that the benefits far outweigh the risks when it comes to the flu shot. My family and I now all receive annual flu shots. I realize many who may read this will be anti-vaccine and I appreciate and respect your opinion, but this is the right approach for me and my family. Thank you.