I received an unexpected text from my mother a few days ago asking if I’d ever “gotten around” to getting the MMR vaccine.
I’ve been following the news of the measles outbreak in California, albeit from a comfortable distance. Though I’m as indignant about irresponsible vaccine-related decisions as the next person, it’s been easy to feel safe here in Baton Rouge, far away from the epicenter of the crisis.
Well, it was easy–until I found that that I never got the MMR vaccine either.
That’s right. I’m unvaccinated.
How is it possible that I didn’t know this piece of information until recently? I’m a responsible adult. Well, admittedly, I might have known this at some point. I have a vague memory of dealing with vaccinations before I went away to college. I sort of remember my doctor filling out a form that secured a waiver of the otherwise stringent requirement that no freshman show up without the MMR vaccine. But I was 18 at the time, and it was such a nonissue that in the 16 years since I’d forgotten. It was that insignificant. I’d never “gotten around” to the MMR vaccine because I put it out of my mind.
Why didn’t I get the vaccine when I was a baby? My parents were not irresponsible hippies. I just had really bad timing. Back in 1981, my parents decided that the problems the vaccine might inflict outweighed the risk that I would contract measles, mumps or rubella. I was diagnosed with JRA so early (13 months) that my diagnosis hit right before the window in which babies typically receive the MMR vaccine.
To oversimplify the complicated issues my parents considered, they knew that because MMR is a live vaccine, anyone with an autoimmune issue, including their baby daughter, was not a good candidate for it. It’s unclear to me whether my JRA diagnosis was on its own the reason I didn’t get the vaccine, or whether I was immediately placed on immunosupressants that put my body at risk the same way children receiving or recovering from chemotherapy are.
If I were diagnosed today, I probably would receive the vaccine and, after a few weeks of waiting, only then would go on immunosuppressants. But hindsight is perfect, and dealing with a very sick child requires split-second decisions that often aren’t.
Still, I hate that decisions made long ago, decisions I had nothing to do with, continue to impact my adult life. I also feel embarrassed. I can’t believe I’m unvaccinated! I’m the most risk-adverse person I know.
And reaching this far into my past makes me cringe. Just like I’ve empowered myself to be anything but a passive patient, I’ve also built a life separate from my parents, in which I am dependent only on myself and my husband. I hate that I need to ask my parents why I was never vaccinated. I hate that they have access to the answers I need.
Even though I was very sick as a child, the defining hallmark of my childhood wasn’t my illness, it was my family’s dysfunction. I come from a family so broken, by divorce and drinking and cruelty of one kind or another, that all of us are ruined. There’s no event calamitous enough to bring us together. Not weddings, not graduations, and certainly not illness. No one checks in when someone else is sick, and despite some rather heroic acts of medical advocacy I remember my parents undertaking on my behalf when I was little, my health is not something they’re interested in anymore.
They stay away during hospitalizations and surgeries. They never call, in good times or in bad. And I can’t just call my parents up when I need to fill in some essential part of my medical history, or my family’s medical history. They don’t pick up. I don’t even have my father’s cell phone number.
I communicate with my mother via text or email.
That’s why my mother asked me about the vaccine via text. And when I texted back “WHAT???” she cut right to the chase. This was my fault.
“You did know at some point, Katherine. You’ve just forgotten,” she explained.
I’m full of questions I can’t ask. Why didn’t my mother or father follow up to see if I’d had the vaccine? Why didn’t someone call me months ago when news of the epidemic started to spread? I spend a good amount of time in California—the risks to my health are real. Didn’t they care? As I deal with this new medical emergency I also have to make peace with their inaction, which feels remarkably like heartlessness. The vaccination status is bad news to begin with, but it’s colored by a sadness that only my parents can trigger.
Now, at age 34, my rheumatologist wants me to have the vaccine, which is going to take some maneuvering because I’m on a biologic. It’s ironic—this is the third one I’ve tried in as many months, and it looks like it’s working. Now I’ll have to go off it so that when I finally get the vaccine, my immune system isn’t quite as compromised.
I’ve chosen March as the month I will be voluntarily incapacitating myself. And this isn’t a risk-free decision. There’s still no telling how my body will react to the vaccine. I know how to prepare for a serious flare. But I’m scared of the vaccine’s interaction with my crappy immune system.
California, right in my backyard.