Two weeks ago, I drove 15 minutes to a nearby CVS to get my COVID booster and my flu vaccine. This is only the third time that I’ve gotten a flu shot. The first time was in 2005. That was the year I gave birth to Emma Anne. Because of her compromised immune system and her open heart surgery and continued fragile health status, we asked everyone in our immediate family to get a flu shot to protect her from getting the flu until she was old enough to get her own flu vaccine.
I also made sure Emma had all her vaccinations that she was eligible for before her surgery. This was actually a requirement by the children’s hospital for her own protection, but there were people who questioned my decision to inject her body with vaccines when she was already so weak. My reasoning was simple though. I knew that because of her fragile health, any respiratory illness was likely to kill her, and the most effective way to protect her was to give her immunizations.
Once Emma was 6 months old, she was eligible for a flu vaccine, and I did get her one, mere days before she ended up catching it anyway (likely exposed before the vaccine was in her system). Five days later she passed away. While I don’t know for certain that the flu was the cause of death, I’m pretty certain that the damage it did to her system contributed to the complication of factors that led to her passing.
After that year I didn’t get the flu shot again until 2021. There wasn’t anyone immunocompromised in my immediate circle. I, personally, had only ever gotten the flu once, maybe twice in my life and while it wasn’t fun, it wasn’t particularly worrying to my health. And there were all these messages I was picking up from people around me, anti-vaxers and vaccine hesitant friends. It made me hesitant to get a vaccine I couldn’t convince myself that I personally needed. Why inject myself with something I’m not completely sure of the risks of when my risk of getting seriously ill are quite low? That was my reasoning. And that remained my reasoning until 2020.
I’m sure you can probably guess where I’m going with this. In 2020 we were hit with the corona virus and suddenly there was a lot more increased awareness of “public health.” In American culture I believe our natural instinct is to think of issues in an individual sense. We are used to making decisions, especially medical ones, based on how we are individually affected. What’s my personal risk and what actions should I take to manage that effectively? For many health issues, this is the correct way to go about it. My body, my choice, and all that. I totally get that. But, in cases of infectious disease, the risk is never just individual. When I get sick, I’m at risk of infecting others, so now their individual risks need to be taken into account too.
I’m not sure why thinking about risk in this way doesn’t come naturally to us. If we live with an immunocompromised person, like I did with Emma 16 years ago, then we might learn to at least take that one other person into account. But it’s a really heavy thing when we stop to think about the web of people we are connected to outside of our household, and perhaps that is why we don’t think about it. In fact, as a child I did think about it a lot, and it led to some really unhealthy worry for me until I learned to suppress my overwhelming sense of responsibility for others.
But the pandemic brought a lot of this to the forefront again for me. Because COVID was just enough more deadly than the viruses we’d learned to live with, it forced us to start thinking about what responsibility we hold for the health of those around us. At least it did for me. But in the midst of taking my responsibility seriously, wearing masks to protect others, agreeing to get vaccinated as soon as it was possible, etc, I was confronted with the hypocrisy of some of my actions.
An acquaintance from my childhood shared a post on social media early on in the pandemic when people were arguing vehemently on both sides of the masking issue. She shared about her immunocompromised child, how she always needed to manage the increased risks her child had by taking protective measures. Surprisingly, at least to me, she was not on the pro-mask side of the debate. For her, it was hypocritical that we should all start suddenly masking to protect people like her child when she’s had to take precautions since long before COVID. Protecting her child was her responsibility and she had no desire to make it ours. I never commented on her post, I had no desire to get into an argument with her, especially since I hated it when people tried to give me their opinions about my decisions with Emma. But her post did make me think. Was I being hypocritical? Was it my responsibility to help protect the most vulnerable among us? And if it is now, during this pandemic, should I be doing more even when it isn’t a pandemic? Basically, should I be taking public health into account for more things than just COVID?
At the same time, there were a decent amount of people pointing out how many flu deaths we have each year and how we never seem too concerned about that. These comments were usually made in order to convince us that we were overreacting about this corona virus thing, but they just got added into the jumble of public health questions I started considering. Even though it should be pretty obvious by now that the coronavirus is more deadly than the flu, I think it is worth asking whether we should be doing more to protect people from the flu. I took precautions to protect Emma. Can I do the same for others, even those I don’t know?
This is the reason why when I was sitting in the doctor’s office for a routine post-op appointment last January and was offered the flu vaccine, I rolled up my sleeve. And this is why, along with my COVID booster today, I also asked for a flu vaccine. Because the answer is yes, I can be doing more to protect my whole community and contribute positively to public health. Vaccines work when we each take a small risk in order to manage the big picture risk for the entire community. So, I intend from now on to keep getting my flu vaccine each year, not because I’m personally worried about catching it, but because I want to help reduce the spread and hopefully the deaths caused by this virus. And this is why I will continue to advocate for wearing a mask in public when you are sick, even after this pandemic is over, because why shouldn’t we do our best to protect others from getting sick, even if it is “just a cold.” And when I struggle to keep the big picture in mind, to remember the risks of my entire community when I make decisions, I will remember Emma. I will remember her last few days on this earth, fighting a virus that she wasn’t equipped to handle, and hope my actions will spare someone else that pain.
This space I am in now is different than the worried anxious space I existed in as a child. We can’t live our lives constantly worried about spreading disease. That’s an unhealthy space to live in, believe me, I know. I’m not advocating for that. I think we take the precautions that we can take, while also recognizing that we cannot control everything. Viruses will still spread. People will still die. I don’t blame whoever “gave” Emma the flu. A virus caused her illness, not a person. But I think we can find a healthy space that exists between fear on one hand and indifference on the other. A space of caution and care and kindness. Perhaps we could call that space love.