September 29th, 2016
Why I No Longer Tolerate Anti-Vaxxers
One may ask why I am all of a sudden fixated on vaccines. I have always been a pro-vaxxer. In graduate school, I once prided myself for talking a whole family into getting vaccines. And I certainly have always promoted vaccines when practicing.
But I used to think that the decision to vaccinate, although important, was not mine to make. Parents have their own reasoning, and my job as the clinician was to provide proper education but then support the decision made. Of course, vaccinating my own children was a no-brainer. (Why wouldn’t I choose to protect them from terrible diseases?)
Then my two-year-old was diagnosed with pertussis. The days following were a blur. I was 38 weeks pregnant and desperately trying to get my daughter the help she needed while also praying that my unborn baby didn’t make an early debut. I had always thought that my own children would be protected because they were vaccinated, and if for whatever reason something happened, the high percentage of vaccinated children would provide extra security.
Here is what happened. My daughter was coughed on while playing at the park. I shrugged it off; kids get sick, and we can’t protect them from everything. About a week later, she developed a terrible cough followed by a high fever. As the days progressed, she developed posttussive emesis and a cough that would stop anyone in their tracks. In the back of my mind, I thought, oh my gosh, she has whooping cough. How crazy would that be though? She’s fully vaccinated. So I chalked it up to a cold and ignored it.
Because I was busy getting my hours in before maternity leave, I had my husband take her to our pediatrician. Our pediatrician called me at work and more or less reassured me that pertussis was not within the differential. She said that our daughter had a bad cough and needed time to recover. I reminded her that I was 12 days away from having a baby and wanted to make sure all was well. So, we made a plan; if the cough wasn’t better in the next 5 days, we would test her.
Well, we didn’t make it 5 days. One day later in the middle of the night, the most heart-stopping cough woke me up. I ran to my daughter’s room and found her gasping (whooping) for air with intermittent bouts of apnea. I yelled to my husband to call 911. By the time he deciphered what I was yelling, my daughter had recovered. She slept with us that night and had two more episodes. The next day we went to urgent care. There, I was belittled and told that there was no way my vaccinated child had pertussis. I mean, after all, she looked perfect in the exam room (doesn’t this always happen?). I must not recognize what croup looks like in a “non-cardiac” baby (cardiology being my practice specialty). To say that this infuriated me is an understatement. Regardless, I was determined to get a diagnosis.
What finally convinced the urgent care providers to send a culture was my advanced pregnancy. However, this, too, was followed with patronizing comments. They wouldn’t even discuss treatment options, stating that they were 99.9% certain that she had croup. I left the appointment thinking I must be crazy.
Later that day I got the phone call — my daughter had pertussis.
A positive culture turned our worlds upside down. We were reported to public health, I couldn’t return to work, my daughter couldn’t leave the house, and everyone in our family needed to be treated. On top of that, the cough continued for weeks. They say pertussis is the 100-day cough, and I can see why.
My daughter catching pertussis, a preventable disease, has been one of the scariest experiences I have had as a parent. Watching her suffer from an absolutely paralyzing cough with apnea was indescribably horrible. This experience taught me two things: First, always listen to parents. They truly know their children best. Second, the decision to vaccinate should not be taken lightly. I will no longer sit quietly when caring for unvaccinated children. I will voice my bias. I once thought I didn’t support anti-vaxxers. Now I can state from experience: I do not tolerate them. If given the choice, I will not treat patients whose parents choose not to vaccinate them.