I am part of a family of five, and neither me nor my siblings received any childhood or adolescent vaccines. My mom is somewhat of a unique anti-vaxxer, in the sense that she believes that the use of vaccinations means we are being too human-centered and are harming other species on the planet as a result. As a biology major, I can see how her logic uses scientific knowledge and explanations, but I can’t understand it. Scientific advancement and evidence shows us that vaccines are effective, save millions of lives each year, and that the risks are far less than the benefits of surviving and protecting others through herd immunity.
Mainstream medical care wasn’t really a thing in our household. All three of us were born at home with a midwife, and I’m honestly not sure when I first saw my pediatrician. I could probably count the number of times I saw a doctor during my childhood on one hand. We didn’t take medications for pain or for anything else. I had chronic migraines from the time I was seven, and it was years before I could take pain medication for that . We didn’t take anything for colds, and never for fevers. There was at least one time, as a teenager, that I decided to take cold medicine for this awful cold I had, but I almost forced myself to throw it back up because I was so worried about what my parents might say. I just wanted to feel some relief.
The fall when I was thirteen, a vaccine-preventable disease took over our house: Whooping cough, or pertussis. My mom, vaccinated as a child but decades overdue for a booster, got it first. My grandma pressured her to go see a doctor, because she recognized the cough and was almost positive it was whooping cough. My mom went, somewhat unwillingly, and was completely brushed off by the doctor. He refused to test her, told her it was impossible, and sent her away with no prescription for antibiotics.
My brother was the next to get sick—he was barely seven at the time. He would cough and cough and cough until he threw up, and then cough more. He couldn’t sleep without interruptions of coughing. I got it next, but still we went on with our mostly regular life. I believe I even continued babysitting—but thank goodness the kiddos I watched were old enough to be fully vaccinated and none of them got sick.
But then I had a sleepover with one of my good friends, who was also unvaccinated, and pretty soon her family was sick. My friend, her mom, her brother, and her dad all started coughing. My sister was the last to get sick in our family (my dad never did), but pertussis had spread to at least two other families in our homeschooling community, one of which had an immunocompromised mom, who contracted the illness.
The only reason we found out it was actually pertussis was because my friend had almost stopped breathing from a coughing-induced asthma attack. She ended up at the ER, they tested her, and it came back positive for pertussis. This took place a full month after I got sick, and we finally got onto antibiotics. But as the doctor explained, we’d been sick for such a long time already that the antibiotics would only deal with the contagion, not the symptoms. I slept sitting up for nearly two months because when I would try to lie down, I would cough and choke and gag on the air I was trying to breathe and the mucus inside my lungs.
I can’t say for sure how long I coughed for, but it was at least six months. Since then, every time I would get a cold I would also get a bad cough, and I can still feel its impact on my breath control every time I sing. I have what seems to be permanent lung damage from going untreated so long, and my breathing and lungs have declined enough to the point where I developed adult-onset asthma. In the past eighteen months, I’ve ended up at the ER for emergency breathing treatments approximately ten times. I’ve been on seventeen medications with almost no relief. This was a preventable situation. There’s an effective tool we have in modern medicine that could have prevented the pain, suffering, and damage to my lungs: the DTaP and Tdap vaccines.
After the battle with pertussis, I was more set than ever on getting vaccinated someday- but that someday would have to wait until I was eighteen and could make my own medical decisions.
Finally, at twenty years old, I walked into a Walgreens and received my first vaccine ever: the Tdap. It was liberating to get that first shot, as it was me taking back my medical autonomy from my childhood and taking care of my body for years to come. I am almost completely caught up with my vaccines now, and am confident in my science-based decision to protect myself, the young and the elderly, the immunocompromised, and to become one of the people advocating for vaccines.
Emma is a twenty-year-old college student pursuing her degree in Ecology & Environmental Biology. The medical experiences she faced growing up have helped her grow as a strong advocate for vaccinations and proper medical care as a person with chronic illness. In her free time, she can be found snuggling with her dog Ollive, studying for the inevitable upcoming exam, or driving between school and doctor’s appointments!