Why a Former Antivaxxer Ran to the Front of the Coronavirus Vaccine Line
One of my superpowers is seeing arguments from all sides. It’s what makes me good at my diversity work building bridges between people across differences. As transparent as I tend to be about my journey, I am aware of the risk of sharing that I was once, however briefly, a full blown antivaxxer.
I don’t always have to internalize a rationale or perspective to understand why people believe what they do. People’s feelings and perspectives are valid, even if they are misguided. I like to hope that each of us has evolved in some way, over time, that causes us to look back and marvel at how we ever believed what we once did. Droves of people are currently evolving as they educate themselves out of their programmed racism — incredulous about their past perspectives and unconscious bias.
An overeager and determined student, I started college at age 15 while finishing high-school in three years. I completed my junior and senior year of high-school, and my freshman year of college, in one year. Book smarts got me nowhere in the real world. I was sheltered Catholic school kid, unprepared for life when I stepped onto campus as a 16 year-old sophomore. I excelled academically and flopped socially. Eager to belong somewhere, I found myself pregnant and married to a man 15 years my senior while I was still a teenager. His views greatly influenced my own and he was staunchly anti medical anything.
I embraced a natural lifestyle, learned to grow produce, and prepared organic baby food from my garden. My husband’s views were extreme, but our bodies were healthy. When it came time to vaccinate the babies, I had been indoctrinated with the standard fear of the autism connection and the general untrustworthiness of the medical establishment. The catch is, I come from a medical family. The sterile smell of hospitals brings me comfort because I associate it with visiting my dad at work and the warm, welcoming energy he emanated to the children he treated, the parents he consoled, and the nurses who nearly swooned as Dr. Dad McDreamy made his rounds.
The internet was not what it is now, back in the 90s. People relied much more on anecdotes, word of mouth, and libraries. I was responsible enough to do some research on vaccinating my kids before opting out because I knew that this aspect of my earthy-crunchy lifestyle might stress my parents to no end. I had already terrified them with my midwife attended home birth (Shoutout to Nancy!), and dropping out of college to become a stay-at-home mom. I was afraid my parents would disown me and maybe take my kids if I refused to vaccinate them.
The data I found most compelling is that infants and the elderly are our most vulnerable populations because they have the weakest immune systems. They are most susceptible to infectious diseases and being harmed or killed by them. I learned that one of the reasons we vaccinate children so young is because we can. We have a captive audience in new, disoriented parents. And getting vaccines in earlier is better for the collective — if not the individual child. This was the understanding I privileged back then. So, rather than deny my children vaccinations, I intentionally delayed them until each child was strong and robust. I breastfed (conferring protection against a lot of illness from my own humoral panel) and attachment parented (baby-wearing) them until at least a year. I initially excluded the shots for diseases eradicated in the US, but ultimately caught those up such as not to deny them lifelong immunity when traveling. With a foreign father and a multi-lingual, well-travelled mother, the odds of them living overseas at some point were very high. I felt good about my decision but still believed that autism was sometimes caused by vaccines. I’m mildly embarrassed to admit it now, but it made sense at the time.
Then the worst happened. A week after my 3 year-old was vaccinated against multiple viruses at once, he was back in the hospital with a mysterious illness that doctors couldn’t explain. He developed Kawasaki disease, the same autoimmune inflammatory disease that kids are developing in conjunction with Covid-19. We were lucky because I followed my sixth sense and caught the warning signs. At the hospital, his tiny body was flushed with immunoglobulins that reprogrammed his cells to stop attacking his own body. He went from perfectly healthy to not being able to walk in a matter of days. I took him in before his hands, feet, and tongue became sore and engorged with blood. He became feverish, lethargic and the skin was peeling off his lips and extremities. Some kids end up with permanent heart damage after their immune system attacks their blood vessels. He survived, but will be studied for the rest of his life because the disease remains a mystery — except to antivaxxers.
Kawasaki disease is not contagious, but it happens in clusters. My son was one of five kids on the ward with it. There was no convincing me that a week after vaccinations, a mystery autoimmune disease that a handful of other kids got wasn’t from a bad batch of vaccinations. Of course, you sign your rights away when your kids are vaccinated because we protect the pharmaceutical industry more than we protect people’s rights to restitution. I’m glad my son is okay now, but that harrowing ordeal that had my baby in critical care for days on end did nothing for my confidence in vaccines. That was my first child and my first foray into vaccinating my kids. Not a great start.
It has taken many years and a ton of research to feel safe with vaccinations again. My 13 year-old is finally caught up on her vaccines. Yes, it took that long because she suffered numerous allergies that I wanted to give a chance to resolve before putting her at greater risk. She was allergic to known vaccine ingredients. Information is power. Many of the allergies resolved and she’s back on track. I still believe in the delayed theory for bubble-dwelling, allergy-prone, kids with good healthcare access who are often insulated from the social and economic conditions that put families more at risk. I am not a medical doctor, so don’t take my word for it. You have to make the best, most informed decision for your child(ren) in consultation with a physician. My physicians helped me make my decisions, so I wasn’t hiding it from the system. They saw that I was informed and validated my concerns about the effects on my individual children.
Watching the pandemic ravage the globe, I’m not taking any chances these days. I’m Black, have autoimmune comorbidity, and one child left at home. I’m not risking death to meet people at an indoor restaurant or taking any chances contracting Covid-19 in the streets. Black mistrust of the medical system is real as a result of our bodies being abused in the name of science from the days of enslavement through the infamous Tuskegee experiments. Nonetheless, we remain among the most vulnerable to Coronavirus. It’s easier for me to take the risk of vaccine because I do not fear mortality. I’ve lived an incredible life, will leave the world three amazing humans that I made from love, and have dedicated my life to the liberation of hearts, minds and bodies. That said, I’d rather go out on my own terms than as a victim of the pandemic. So far, people are faring well with the vaccine. My senior parents were vaccinated early both because of their age and because my dad now runs a hospital system. They are doing great. I’m next in line based on my risk factors. I signed up through my state medical website. Medicine isn’t perfect and there will be adverse effects for some. But to the best of our knowledge, the net benefit for all of humanity exceeds the risk of injury by vaccination. The more of us who get vaccinated, the safer we will all be, sooner. I will always respect individual choice, but I hope more people choose Covid-19 vaccine immunity for all of our sakes.