Saturday, December 5, 2009

Mass Hysteria

I was a biology major in college. I remember studying the human body and the mind-boggling sophistication of the immune system. I remember Dr. Ted Johnson addressing our society’s germ-o-phobia by quipping: “Unless there’s more than one of you on it, you’re not going to get a disease from a toilet seat.”

I loved George Carlin’s routine about that same societal over-sanitation in which he extols the virtues of getting exposed to as much crud as you can because it gives the immune system exercise. He goes on to talk about swimming in the Hudson River as a child and concludes by yelling, “Raw sewage! We swam in RAW SEWAGE!” and claiming that’s what led to healthy childhood immunity.

When H1N1 hit the scene, I followed a bit of the coverage and, when the CDC arrived at the conclusion that this virus was really no more threatening than your run-of-the-mill winter flu, I stopped paying attention. Our school district has sent out notifications of the status of the virus within our community and the tone has always been highly rational and measured. No, we will not be closing down schools. No, we don’t expect you to quarantine yourself for every case of the sniffles. No, we will not buy into the media-created hysteria but we will keep you posted about any developments.

Great, I thought. No worries.

So when the school district sent out a notification that it was hosting a Hennepin County H1N1 vaccine clinic at the high school, it gave me pause. Should I be worried?

I consulted the most rational, thoughtful and well-informed person I know: my dad. He was quick to confirm most of what I knew, but was able to fill in a few holes—most importantly that, while half of H1N1 deaths among children were in kids with additional underlying health issues, half of these deaths were in kids who were otherwise healthy. He gently and quite non-hysterically advised that I probably ought to have the kids vaccinated if the vaccine was being made available to them.

This bugged me. Not because my dad was wrong, but because he was so damn rational about it. I was left in a parental conundrum: do I stick with my gut instinct, which is to roll the dice with George Carlin, or do I listen to measured wisdom and just take the kids to the clinic? I felt like no matter what I chose, I was wrong. My husband pointed out that I could look at it another way: “no matter what you choose, you’d be right.” But that didn’t help. Because I still didn’t know which one was a better choice.

I decided we’d go to the clinic, but if it was a total mob scene, we’d turn around and leave. On my way to the clinic on December 3rd, I called a friend to talk through my misgivings. After listening to my circular thinking and over-analysis she said: “Have you prayed about it?”


You know, I suppose I could do that, couldn’t I? Yeah, okay then.

So I put it in God’s hands, parked the car at the high school and followed the quickly-moving crowd inside.

Mass hysteria. Literally thousands of people in long, amusement-park-style snaking lines up and down hallways and around corners to the police line in front of the activity center. At least we got inside the building—there were plenty more people lining up outside in the gently falling snow. Are you kidding me? I thought. This is ridiculous.

But I stayed. I told the kids, “Someone told me it goes really fast. So we’ll wait until it actually opens at 4pm and then another 20 minutes. If we’re nowhere near the actual clinic, we’re leaving." The clinic opened. The county workers escorted in the first batch of patients. The line moved all of 30 feet.

Hell with it, I fumed, and we left the building, walking along the now 150-yard-long line outside into the packed parking lot full of roaming cars scouring for empty spots, police vehicles and county workers directing traffic, and back to our car.

I was owly as I drove away. I called Dan to let him know that we hadn’t stayed, that it had been a ridiculous spectacle. He affirmed my decision, but I was still crabby. Why didn’t this feel like God had affirmed my decision not to vaccinate? Why didn’t I feel like I was off the hook?

About three quarters of the way home, I thought, “I’ll call the kids’ pediatrician's office and see what they say.”

“Yes, we do H1N1 vaccines,” they said. “In fact, we’re having a clinic on Saturday—we just got in a new batch. I have openings at 8:15, 8:30 and 8:45 am and then a few later on.”

So this morning at 8:15 we were at the clinic. The kids were nervous. Especially when we walked in and heard the weeping and gnashing of teeth going on behind the door. “That’s promising” I quipped to the kids. All the parents in the waiting room laughed.

At 8:30 we were home. The injections didn’t hurt. “That was fun,” Eiledon said, probably more out of embarrassment for her initial fear and refusal to get the shot. “I wish I’d gone first,” said Gavin in much the same spirit. Done is done, I thought, in that very same spirit. What a non-issue.

So who was the hysterical one?

1 comment:

  1. You did a good thing, Bek. Prior to my own injection of the vaccine a couple of weeks ago, my biggest fear was getting exposed through someone else who had decided to pass on the vaccination. The vaccine doesn't only protect the vaccinated - it also protects the immunocompromised members of the community who may not yet be protected by their own vaccination (despite being a transplant patient, I was among the last of the "priority groups" to be offered the dose before it went to the public).

    So for the immunocompromised population - a heartfelt thanks! (Don't forget that Gavin will need another dose in a month...). :-)