Tuesday, November 18, 2014

I Vaccinated People Against Polio and Didn't Know It

Most people got their polio vaccines as children and it was either the Salk (the dead virus) or the Sabin version of the vaccine which was an attenuated virus. I, however, managed to slip through either group as an elementary school student and I also managed to escape the ravages of this disease that left so many kids in iron lungs. 

Interesting that I should have a relative that, years later, would go to visit a very famous author who was, in fact, in an iron lung at her home. Never did I give a thought to whether or not I, as an adult, should be vaccinated. I had escaped, wasn’t that good enough? Apparently not from the situation of the author.

No, I didn’t contract polio, but an unsettling rise in cases of recurrent, later-in-life polio (aka post-polio syndrome) began to get the press’ attention and it caught mine, too. Adults, who had never been vaccinated as children or who had had a milder form of the disease, were now exhibiting symptoms and the campaign was on to get everyone vaccinated. Polio, after all, had been eradicated and here it was rearing its ugly head again and the health authorities were determined to cut it off at the pass.

That, of course, got my attention as I had no wish to be encased in what looked like a huge and very antiquated bit of equipment for the remainder of my life. I’d been to the movies as a kid and I saw those public service announcements that displayed what awaited those who failed to take heed. The clicking of the compressor, the little heads resting outside the huge capsule in which their bodies were encased was frightening, but I never thought it would be me there lying in that helpless position. It happened to other kids and no one had ever suggested that I get vaccinated.

Our elementary school administration was, of course, aware of the scourge afflicting kids and they took what steps they could to protect us. So, men came in with large ladders and huge circular, purplish lighting fixtures that were installed in our classrooms. These, we were told, would kill the virus and protect us. Did they? I have no idea, but I do know that no one in my classes contracted polio. At least, not that I knew of. I don’t recall any discussions about kids in our school, in any grade, having become polio victims, but who knows? These things were carefully kept secret from we kids and perhaps that was a good thing. But maybe not because it nurtured in me a belief that I was now safe as an adult—and I was to learn much later that this was a bit of folly on my part.

As luck would have it, many decades after elementary school I was working on a national research project. These program designs always have an element of sociability built into them and that’s where you get to eat an expensive lunch on someone else’s tab and hear the latest gossip. I didn’t know that this innocent luncheon patter would send me directly to my family physician on my return home.

“Oh, yeah,” one of the clinicians said to all of us, “there’s a real problem with polio. It may be coming back, especially to anyone who wasn’t vaccinated as a kid.” The words hit my stomach like a rock as I strained to keep my facial composure. “Polio,” I asked. What did he mean. He then went on to discuss how it was really important for everyone to be sure they were vaccinated either as a kid or now as an adult. In my mind, visions of those kids in those white canisters flashed through my head. A bit of sweat began to push out on my forehead as the anxiety rose up at the very mention of polio and a potential relationship to me. 

As soon as my plane touched down and I was in my apartment, I called my physician and told him, “I need to be vaccinated for polio.” His response was not what I had anticipated. In a soft, firm voice he informed me that his office did not stock the vaccine since it was only used for infants; everyone else had been vaccinated. “Except for me,” I wanted to shout out into the telephone. But I didn’t because he told me that he’d make arrangements for me to go to a local pediatrician’s to get my vaccination. Pediatrician? Yes, they were the only ones who carried it now.

A week later, I was sitting in an office that had tiny chairs, toys in the corner and a little dish with lollipops in it. The nurse, cheerily, said, “Why you’re our oldest patient!” She then proceeded to tell me that I’d have to wait another two to three weeks for my vaccination because, “We have to give the vaccine to our infants first.” So, now that I was at risk and an adult, I had to get in line after all the infants. “And,” she continued, “it comes in frozen.” Frozen? Since when did a vaccine come in frozen form? Had Swanson or Marie Callender gone into the vaccine business? 

Two more weeks of no vaccination passed and I was once again in the pediatrician’s office where the nurse greeted me, told me to sit down and put my head back, as though I were a child, and squished a small plastic packet in her hand. “We have to warm it up a bit,” she said as I watched and she kept my head tilted back with her other hand. Obviously, children have to be restrained and I was falling into that all-too-familiar routine even though I WAS the oldest patient.

“Now open wide,” I was instructed and she squirted something into the back of my mouth. “No food or drinks for at least an hour and you’ll come back in three months (I think it was three months) for your next treatment.” Off I went feeling a bit better but now I realized that I had another treatment and then yet another in a year or so. When would I be safe and why hadn’t anyone ever thought to ask me about this? Perfect example of slipping through the healthcare cracks because everyone just assumed I had been vaccinated.

The following two procedures went without incident and I was glad that each time I came to the pediatrician’s office there were no other patients present. I would have felt more than foolish sitting there as the nurse held my head back and administered the vaccine. Thank God for small favors.

But the best was yet to come. The next year, after my final gulp of vaccine, I was again seated at a luncheon table with several physicians and they were again, who knows why, discussing the polio vaccine. Was this sheer dumb luck or what? 

“Yeah,” the first guy began, “it seems that after you get the oral vaccine you begin to re-vaccinate everyone you come into contact with for the first week or so. Each time you talk to someone, you spray the vaccine their way and they, unknowingly, take it in. You’re doing them a big favor.” 

I was vaccinating everyone I spoke to right after those three administrations of the polio vaccine? But suppose instead of giving them a booster shot, I had infected them? I couldn’t have been the only adult who hadn’t been vaccinated as a kid. Could I have done harm and, if so, why didn’t anyone think to provide this information to me? Another example of a medical slip-up. 

No one did get sick and one friend, when she heard my story, actually thanked me for the free booster shot I’d provided via an innocent conversation. Strange how things work out, isn’t it?


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