February 9, 2015

Actually, it’s not Really about Vaccines.

Carlos Reusser Monsalvez/Flickr

If labels are your thing, you might say I lean more toward the crunchy side of parenting.

I breastfed for 11 months but wondered if I stopped too soon.

I research ingredients in my daughter’s food, I buy organic and I’ve been told I practice attachment parenting.

We used “Baby Led Weaning,” we give our daughter daily probiotics and we try to limit screen time as best as we can.

My circle of mom friends are a lot like me, and like every mom I know, my circle is my lifeline. In addition to reminding me that it’s possible to have fun with baby in tow, these women are my sounding board and trusted go-to people in the “help-me-I-have-no-idea-what–I’m-effing-doing” moments.

But there is one very big topic that we rarely discuss, heeding the unspoken agreement to live and let live. (Or simply because we are just too exhausted to defend and debate.)

That issue is vaccination.

We vaccinate our daughter—not without some hesitation—but we do.

But I’m not here to weigh the pros and cons of vaccination. I’m not here to reiterate or regurgitate the throngs of op-ed pieces you’ve already seen.

I’m simply writing because I don’t think this debate is really about vaccinations at all. There’s something bigger happening.

Like most moms I know, decisions about my child’s health and well-being are the ones that keep me up at night.

Nothing I’ve experienced rivals the raw, innate, gut-wrenching concern that descends upon me when my daughter spikes a fever. Sitting in limbo might just be one of the hardest parts of “mommyhood,” (or a dark steamy bathroom, as the case may be), trying to figure out a way to ease your child’s pain as she screams out, inconsolable, while not fully understanding what has taken over her little body.

The pain and concern that a parent feels over a sick child is potent.

It is a visceral feeling of anguish that remains deep in our souls long after the illness has moved on. It quietly roots itself in the pit of our being and blossoms into an urgent responsibility to do everything in our power to keep our kids healthy.

But this is where it gets tricky: how we choose to act on that responsibility differs greatly. Nowhere is this more obvious than the vaccination debate.

On both sides of this battle stand mothers, all passionate with the instinctive desire to give their children the best shot at a healthy life, and all wanting to be heard.

You can’t blame anyone for that.

But what makes this battle unique is that the stakes are changing faster than we may have anticipated.

As recently as a year ago, this was a war fought on principle alone, our discussions often driven by hypotheticals. Now, with infectious disease outbreaks on the rise, it’s time for a real, open-minded and empathetic conversation about the risks vs. benefits of vaccines.

And if that conversation is going to happen, we first need to change the culture of the doctor/parent relationship.

Many parents have grown to distrust our doctors and the healthcare machine standing behind them. It is a machine that operates on blind faith, requiring the trust of the patient while assuming that they won’t ask the tough questions.

It is a machine that assumes a mother will immediately concede her instincts are less viable and less relevant than the knowledge her doctor may have. After all, this machine works on a 15 minute schedule.

Yes, there are amazing healthcare professionals out there.

We are lucky to have found a fantastic, compassionate, intelligent pediatrician that believes parents should be partners in the care plan for their children. I consider myself lucky, yet, I also feel the mistrust that comes from too many bad experiences.

I feel it every time we enter an emergency room, or speak to an insurance company. I feel it when I have to fight to be heard, when I tell them something is wrong and I am waved off. I feel it when I remember my brief stint in medical billing, witnessing things that appalled me.

And I have certainly had to advocate for my daughter’s health—and my own—several times after being dismissed.

Shoot, if it weren’t for my own stubborn persistence, I would never have been treated for Lyme Disease.

Most “mom-battles” are waged around parenting decisions that rarely affect or include the medical professional: To Breastfeed or To Formula Feed, To Cry It Out or To Soothe, the list goes on.

It kills me when moms (or worse, non-moms) judge other moms for their decisions. Yet in this particular vaccine battle, we are not only judging each other, we are also being judged by our doctors, and judging them right back.

Parents, tired of feeling powerless in the doctor’s office, are taking more ownership over the health decisions they can control. And the medical field, who have overlooked some viable natural health choices in the past (discrediting themselves in the eyes of some parents), are now being ignored when they rightfully declare this situation catastrophic.

Still, I can tell you, there are a lot of moms out there like me, who don’t want to be told what to do based on protocol.

They want to make the decision that they feel is best for their family. They want to ask a question and not be dismissed, or have access to finding helpful, objective information.

The media has emphasized the fact that the anti-vaccination demographic is mostly well-educated. This isn’t surprising, really. There are a lot of well-educated mothers who want to know the details surrounding their children’s health.

They want to know what they are putting into those vulnerable little systems. They want to make informed decisions. They want to take an active role in deciding what is best for their most beloved. They don’t want to sit by passively, and they want their mother’s intuition to be respected and responded to.

Still, I am an eternal optimist.

I am someone who believes that many of the world’s problems could be solved if we all took a moment to listen and show compassion. If we want to resolve the vaccination debate, and many of the other problems that plague our healthcare system today, we need to start with the basics.

We need to re-develop trust in the doctor/patient relationship. We need to start an epic conversation.

Seattle Municipal Archives/Flickr

Doctors, we ask you: please take a moment to understand that we are not numbers, or charts or dollar signs.

We are people, and we are trying to understand what we are up against. Please acknowledge and understand the value in natural health and other global medical traditions.

Do your research. We are going to ask.

Please advocate for the patient’s best interest when you go up against insurance companies or pharmaceutical companies.

We know they wine and dine you, but please—be straightforward.

Give us full disclosure. Tell us all of our options. When you don’t know the answer, please be honest and join us in the hunt for new information.

Please don’t take the easy or quick way out.

Give us alternative ideas when we don’t want a medication. Understand that to a mom with a sick kid, “let’s wait and see” are fighting words.

Please encourage patients to seek out information, to take preventative measures, to eat and live well.

Walk the walk. And please, for the love of humanity, take a moment to listen, not dismiss.

To the pharmaceutical companies: We beg you—please start humanizing treatment.

Please use natural ingredients whenever possible.

Please don’t give us toxic chemicals in the name of health. And better yet, give us a list of ingredients. There has to be a better way, and we challenge you to find it.

Research the risks of your drugs and publish them for us to read. Research alternative vaccination schedules and publish them for us to read.

Treat consumers the way you would treat a doctor.

And parents: Do your due diligence.

Educate yourselves. Be polite and speak the facts.

Don’t judge, and don’t scare each other—fear is a powerful means of manipulation.

Support one another. Get a second opinion.

In fact, get multiple opinions, and then trust yourself to make the best decision for your family. If you don’t like your doctor or you feel bad when you leave, find a new one.

Be persistent and kind.

When you find a doctor you like, trust her experience, trust her knowledge, trust her intention.

But also—trust your instincts.

Become an educated consumer. Understand your health insurance. And remember that other parents feel the same way you do. Remember that your decisions may affect the health of those around you.

Be considerate and use common sense. We must all raise our children together.

For us, there is no perfect answer when it comes to vaccination.

I am skeptical of what goes into some of these vaccines. But my daughter, who is now almost 2, has been in daycare since she was 4 months old.

In that time, we have already fought pneumonia, the flu, croup 3 or 4 times, bronchiolitis, multiple ear infections and who knows how many coughs and runny noses.

That is our reality.

And so we must make the decision that is going to keep her as healthy as possible for her daily life. We have to compare risking a high chance of measles (or God forbid, something worse) against the small chance of an adverse side effect.

And, we must also consider the health of the rest of the children she interacts with every day. Whether or not I agree with their parents’ philosophies, our commonality is still greater than the sum of our differences: we want our kids safe and healthy.

Surely, changing the culture of the doctor/parent relationship is a momentous task.

But it’s necessary, if we are going to resolve the vaccination debate, and the public health battles to come.

Healthcare is not a matter of policy and protocol; let’s make it an open forum, where compassion guides the dialogue.



This is Why I didn’t give my Toddler the MMR Vaccine.


Author: Saralyn Ward

Apprentice Editor: Brandie Smith/Editor: Catherine Monkman

Photos: Carlos Reusser Monsalvez/Flickr, Seattle Municipal Archives/Flickr

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Saralyn Ward