True Story: Living History, Vaccines, and a Plea
She was old. Like why-did-you-throw-the-blue-diamond-back-into-the-ocean old. I noticed her heading to the front of the room, after I finished delivering a presentation on childhood vaccines.
Her hair was fashioned into a perfect silver coif, tightly tucked behind both ears. She was wearing a pressed dress of thick, sky blue cotton. As she stepped closer, I could see her face had deep lines undoubtedly made from years of full living. A strong furrow full of grit, smile lines deep from happiness, and a well-healed scar above her right silver eyebrow.
When she arrived at the front, I somehow knew she had a story to share. She didn’t disappoint.
“Do you still give babies shots against diphtheria?” she asked in a soft, unwavering voice.
“Yes, we do,” I said. “Babies get protection from diphtheria beginning at 2 months of life with a DTaP shot.”
“Good. Good. Keep doing that.”
“Why do you ask?”
“My cousin had diphtheria,” she said. Her memory began to unfold:
I was 4-years-old. I still remember visiting her. She was older than me, and really sick. We had gone to visit her at her family’s farm. She was in the main room, propped up on pillows in an old brown chair.
I remember watching her breathe, her chest sinking deep with every inhale. Sinking in. Bouncing out. Sinking in. Bouncing out.
As if unconsciously, the old woman’s frail hand was clutching her chest. She began to motion the heaving breaths her cousin must have been taking in that old brown chair.
Her dramatic actions were noticed by other conference attendees. A circle began to form around the old woman. We all listened to her continuing story:
In those days, we did not have a TV and couldn’t afford many books, so she just sat there. She just stayed in that chair, breathing. The rest of us - we had work to do. We would pass her by, doing chores. We ate dinner in the next room. It was like she was invisible, not even there.
After we left that day, I assumed that she had died. It wasn’t until many years later, I learned that she actually had survived. No doctors. No hospitals. Just one of the lucky ones, I guess.
You see... I never knew that she had lived because after that visit to my cousin’s house, we all went back home and never left again.
Once my parents had learned that one of their children could catch the disease my cousin had... We never left the farm.
We never went to the general store, not to family events, not even to church. For years, the only place that my brothers and sisters and I were allowed to go was the schoolhouse. The schoolhouse and back; that was it.
My parents were so afraid of losing one of us to that disease, that they decided to do everything they could to keep us away from it.
So, that was my childhood. Schoolhouse and back.
Do you know the interesting part? My parents... They were farm folk, tough and strong. For the rest of my life, I never knew them to be scared of anything else... Just that diphtheria.
She paused. Her eyes were now gazing over my right shoulder. You could almost see the memories, as images, flickering in her eyes. We all stood silent, enraptured by her oral history. She continued:
I remember when I was in early elementary school, my parents dragged my siblings and myself to the clinic. There was a man in a big brown coat and black hat. He carried a big bag full of a brand new medicine that could keep us safe from diphtheria. A shot, they said.
I’m sure my parents had no idea what it was, or how it worked. All they knew was that there was a new vaccine that could keep their babies safe.
My parents put us first in line, and rolled up our sleeves.
I’m so thankful that my parents made that decision for us - that they took us to get that vaccine. I believe it is part of the reason that I am still here; alive after all these years.
At that moment, her gaze switched right into my eyes. She blinked a few times, almost like she was snapping back into 2013.
These kids these days, letting their babies go around unprotected...
Don’t they know that these diseases can kill their babies? That their babies could die without these vaccines?
Why isn’t anyone telling them? Someone should be telling them.
“Yes, Ma’am,” I stammered, still reeling. "We are trying to tell them. We are trying our best. In fact, I think you just helped.”
Thank you, Pam, for sharing a piece of your incredible life, and reminding us why we all need to keep telling them.