Shot Through the Heart
Last Thursday night, the governor of New York State and the mayor of New York City announced that the first case of Ebola had been diagnosed at Bellevue Hospital. The man — a doctor who had recently returned from treating Ebola patients in West Africa — had fallen ill that morning, after a night of bowling in Williamsburg, they said. I live in Greenpoint, less than a mile away from the bowling alley he had been in just twenty-four hours earlier.
Hearing this struck fear in my heart. Not because I thought there was any real risk of me getting Ebola: I trusted the information the CDC reported, that Ebola can only be contracted from a person with active symptoms, and even in cases of a very sick person coming in casual contact with me, it would be relatively hard to contract Ebola. I am a fairly pragmatic person, capable of talking myself through the logical ends of various what-if scenarios. I have faith in modern medicine.
The fear wasn’t about me, though: It was for my nine-month-old daughter. The what-if scenarios, though only momentary, were extreme. For just one second, it seemed absolutely certain to me that she would somehow, devastatingly skirt the odds and come down with Ebola.
A thing I have learned about myself-as-parent: When my child is involved, it takes some extra arguing with my brain for rationality to prevail.
As I said, I believe in the wonders of modern medicine. I get flu shots every year; I get yearly physicals; I go to the dentist twice a year; I floss daily. I found doctors whom I trust, so I follow their advice dutifully. But there is a slight recklessness in all of this: I know that I could get cancer and die. I could walk into the street and get hit by a car. Ebola? Very unlikely, I know, so why bother worrying about it? I reason these things out. Throughout my pregnancy I was cautious where I was told to be, I watched what I ate and drank, and I listened carefully to everything my doctor told me. But I also knew that many things were out of my control, and my obstetrician told me as much. Don’t worry too much, he said, much of this is out of your hands. So I didn’t, and carried along throughout those ten months mostly happy and unbothered.
She arrived, quite healthy, and we were sent home.
Then the fits of worrying, which were so very unlike me, started. They were always fleeting, overruled by my mind or a call to the pediatrician. First, I feared her stuffy nose, which made her breathe so loudly. Googling only made it worse: Newborns can’t breathe through their mouths! We learned to use the Nose Frieda to suck the snot out of her nose when it was especially bad, but most of the time, she took care of herself. Then it was jaundice. Sure, all babies have a little bit of jaundice, but if it progresses it can be fatal! Of course it almost never is, but I was sure, for an instant, that we were the one in a million plagued by a serious case of jaundice. I examined her skin and the whites of her eyes hourly. We weren’t one in a million; her skin became pink on its own a few days after birth. Then I feared she wasn’t gaining weight fast enough. She would suffer from a dreaded “failure to thrive” diagnosis. She wasn’t nursing enough! She was starving! I called in a lactation consultant and weighed her. I began pumping the milk so that I could see, in ounces, that she was eating enough. She gained weight on schedule, and then magically blew the charts away, becoming chubbier day by day. In the earliest days, too, of course, SIDs was a massive concern. We put her to sleep on her back. We monitored her, checked to see if she was breathing hourly. We worried over the temperature of the room: too hot? too cold? I read the facts: SIDs is quite rare. It is also often inexplicable. As the months passed, the worries lessened. I checked less often to see if she was still alive, because, predictably, she always was.
Successfully avoiding such crises daily conditioned me quickly. I became, faster than I thought I would, more laid back. I worried less about things which are either unlikely or out of our control. But I also learned that having a baby, a person whose well-being depends wholly upon you, is unlike caring for myself. Sometimes, reason doesn’t kick in. Sometimes, I worry just because.
The odds of Zelda getting Ebola are currently, and, for the foreseeable future, incredibly low. The odds of her getting polio, pertussis (whooping cough), pneumococcal disease, hepatitis B, rotavirus, and probably some other things I don’t know about are also terrifically low, because we have vaccinated her against them, and some of these viruses and diseases have been, in the US, largely eradicated.
There has been a movement in the past decade or so, partly fueled by one lousy and discredited medical paper which linked vaccines to autism, against vaccinating babies and children. Though most states require vaccinations for children to attend school, there are “personal belief” exemptions, and, for instance, in California, the numbers in certain counties have grown exponentially in the past few years. In 2010, the worst outbreak of whooping cough in sixty years afflicted nine thousand people and killed ten infants. It’s not an accident that Marin County, California, which has the highest non-medical vaccination exemption rate in the country, also has the second highest rate of whooping cough in the country. There have been nearly six hundred cases of measles this year — a disease which was declared “eliminated” in the US in 2010 — which the CDC has attributed to… people not getting their children vaccinated.
I’m not very interested in arguing with people who don’t believe in vaccinating their children, because I know that they believe this despite all scientific evidence, despite the fact that risks to babies and children who are vaccinated are terrifically low, despite the fact that it exposes their children to possibly deadly viruses and diseases. But I am, now, as a parent, sometimes forced, living as I do in New York City, where some private school vaccination rates hover at less than fifty percent, to fear irrational things. To fear an outbreak of measles. Or whooping cough. Because the unvaccinated don’t simply risk themselves, of course: They risk everyone else, failing to bolster the “herd immunity” which eradicates such diseases.
As a parent, I have learned to deal with daily bouts of fear: of the unknown, of a fall, a bump on the head, or a cold. We face the falls, the bumps, the colds, and we weather these tiny little storms, and I look back on them and laugh at myself for being so silly despite what I know are the odds. I’m learning the way I learned with myself — that there are things I can control, and things which I can’t.
I’m also learning to accept something else about myself. I don’t judge other parents’ parenting. I don’t care if people sleep train their babies or not, or if they breastfeed them or let them chug down formula. I don’t care if they’re vegetarians or not. We as parents, are all just trying to do what is best for our babies, overcoming the fear and enjoying their little moments of brilliance. But I do have this one, closely held religious belief, which I would now gladly argue because it’s a “personal” decision which affects everyone. I believe that you are a fucking asshole if you do not vaccinate your children.
In the weeks and months since Ebola has been a news topic, there is that familiar push and pull in the media. On the one hand, we have the irrational panic: WHAT IF THERE IS AN EBOLA OUTBREAK IN NEW YORK CITY OR (insert your city). And on the other, we have the well-positioned, well-meaning, and well-informed “scoffers,” who tell us the statistics: the flu, heart disease, AIDS, (you can insert literally almost any affliction that is NOT Ebola here) kill so many more people than Ebola. Don’t worry, it’s incredibly unlikely!
And that’s true. I am made less anxious by its truth. I trust the statistics. But part of me, the worst part, the part that wakes in the dead of the night to remember an embarrassing thing I said in 1995, sometimes whispers lies in the face of the facts.
I don’t fear Ebola. I fear the flu spreading like a fire in a dry forest. I fear the return of Polio, or an outbreak of the measles. I fear stupidity and lies. I fear Jenny McCarthy, and Kristin Cavallari, celebrities with platforms, who are not doctors, spreading not just lies about vaccines but actual diseases with their unprotected children.
I fear, sometimes, in spite of myself. And in spite of my beautiful, fully vaccinated baby.
THE PARENT RAP is an endearing new column about the fucked up and cruel world of parenting.
Laura June is a writer and a very cool mom. She is also the author of “The Vampire Diaries.”
Photo by NIH