(The following is a fictitious story based on a real-life incident.)
Nurse Koszin spotted a young mother at the coffee machine in the far corner of the cafeteria. This late at night the serving line was closed, the tables and chairs were neatly arranged – and empty. By the overhead spotlight, she could see the dark circles and smeared mascara of a parent in pain.
“Mrs. Thompson? Mrs. Thompson. There you are,” she said lightly.
“Yes?!” The mother’s voice echoed through the empty room. “Is anything wrong?”
“No, no.” She tried to be as reassuring as possible. “Janie is actually improving. The doctor wants to talk with you. He’s ready to remove the breathing tube and needs to talk to you about the procedure so that you know what to expect.”
The mother’s eyes relaxed, but still looked haunted. “It’s been three days since she went into Peds ICU. I thought she was going to die.”
“Measles can do that,” the nurse said, “just sneak up on us without warning. It’s been years since we’ve seen measles pneumonia. Actually there’s been no measles transmission at all since before the year 2000.” She paused. How far should she go? “When enough children aren’t immunized, the disease can break through.”
“But they told us the immunizations were dangerous.” The mother’s anxiety was turning to anger. “They said that the measles vaccine was causing autism. Then they said that the thimerosal in the vaccines was causing it.” Her quivering hand touched her forehead, brushing back loose strands of hair. “But they never told me that measles could kill my child!”
“Most young parents have never seen these childhood diseases – like I did when I was a kid. The mother of my best friend spent four years in an iron lung, paralyzed from the neck down with polio. And she was one of the lucky ones; she survived – in a wheel chair.”
“Why don’t they tell us these things? Why don’t we know?” The mother’s fists were balled, waiting to punch some unseen adversary.
“Lots of reasons,” the nurse said with a sad smile, “mostly because parents love their kids and want to see them avoid the latest popular disease – in this case, autism. They took thimerosal out of the vaccines in 2001. But autism rates continue to climb – probably because we’re more aware of it and better at detecting it.”
She leaned against the nearest chair, exhausted from her long shift at the hospital, saddened from retelling these statistics to five sets of parents whose children had come through her Peds ICU in the last week. “The truth is – believe it or not – vaccinations don’t cause autism. They don’t cause exhaustion of the immune system. They save thousands of lives and billions of dollars in hospital costs – and prevent millions of infections like Janie has.”
The mother raised her hands to her mouth, touching her lips with a quiet prayer. “Janie’s going to be alright, isn’t she?” she whispered.
“Yes, I think so,” the nurse quickly reassured her. She reached out her hand. “Let’s go talk to Doctor,” she said, clasping the tired mother’s hand and leading her past the first row of tables. She stopped.
“Do you have other children?” she asked earnestly. “Get them vaccinated.”