Tuesday, October 29, 2013

'Tis the Season

I originally posted this as a status update on my personal Facebook page as a way to respectfully chime in to one of my favorite seasonal traditions: the great flu shot debate. Two hours, 22 shares, and 16 comments later, I realized this was an issue that people need to be talking about, and so I decided to take it to some of the coolest and smartest folks I know -- all of you. Please be aware, of course, that this is my own highly personal perspective as a person, as a CFer, as a transplant recipient, and as a a strong believer in community health. Because what we do matters. I promise.

Every year around this time I watch for the first flurries. I sit in wait for those swirling flakes of debate that go hand in hand with the coldest season of the year and the inevitable question that, sooner or later, we all have to face. Should I get a flu shot?

Honestly, I can't answer that question for you. No one can, except maybe your doctor or your child's school depending on its vaccination rules. I can't tell you whether it's worth the so-called risks of the shot itself, or playing the bad guy and bundling your kids off to the doctor again. I haven't read every piece of medical literature out there on the subject, nor could I even if I made it my full-time job. I'm not here to discuss conspiracies or WHO statistics or the devastating spread of preventable disease in countries where vaccinations are not available. I'm not here to police your decision at all, in fact. I'm here to share mine.

I don't have a choice in the whole vaccine thing because when I got my lung transplant they made me sign a paper promising that I would stay current on all vaccines for the rest of my life (except live vaccines, which are dangerous for me). So every year, while other folks debate, I simply trudge out to my doctor's office, endure the poke, and keep my promise to myself, my healthcare team, and my donor. That said, even my doc admits that vaccines might not work on me very well simply because I don't have much of an immune system to react to the dead virus and produce the necessary antibodies. Because of this, everyone who lives with me or shares close contact with me on a regular basis is also required to get their shot to help keep me (and my precious lungs) safe. That means my boyfriend is getting his shot for pretty much the first time ever this year. Bear in mind that he's not so super into needles, that one, but he's doing it for me anyway. Love is never having to say "I'm sorry my genetic disease requires me to purposefully destroy my immune system so that you have to get a shot."

Here's the point, though: if he didn't know me, he would most likely be just fine without the flu shot. True, over 40% of the children who died of the flu in recent years were apparently not high risk patients, but even so -- most normal, healthy folks will be just fine, even if they do get the virus. But the fact is that he does know me, and chances are good that you, too, know someone who is deathly afraid of catching the flu for a really good reason. Chances are you know someone, even if you aren't aware of it, who has a lower immune system capability, or an underlying disease, or is elderly, or is pregnant, or . . . well, the list is pretty extensive, actually. These people are afraid of the flu because, to us, this virus is way more than an inconvenience or a few missed days at the office. And we care about the flu shot -- yes, even your choice to get the flu shot -- not because we want your arm to be sore or because we get a kick out of watching healthy folks facing their fear of needles. We care about it because this issue, for us, is about more than your right to build up your 7-year-old's immune system "the natural way." It's about our right to go outside of our houses between the months of October-April without risking our very lives because that 7-year-old (or his parent, classmate, teacher, or someone else who caught the flu after him) is in front of us in the grocery line.

Vaccination is a personal choice, right? But spreading germs once you catch them is not. Even with great hygiene and the best of intentions, those pesky little things have a way of making themselves at home on classmates, coworkers, friends, loved ones, public surfaces, and all sorts of other shared spaces. And maybe that's not a huge problem for you or for your child. In fact, maybe it's a risk you are willing, able, and even happy to take. That's fair. But before we make these so-called personal choices about preventative healthcare, maybe we should all look to our right and look to our left and then ask ourselves honestly: are we truly willing to risk the health of our neighbors (friends, family, strangers on the street) for the sake of this one "individual" decision?

Because that's the kicker with community health, guys. It's never as personal as we think it is.

So if you choose not to get your flu shot this year, please also consider staying home if you or a close family member is ill. Please consider the fact that most people shed virus for at least a day before they even show symptoms of a virus like influenza, and please consider educating your children about proper hygiene habits like coughing into their upper arm, washing their hands frequently, and sneezing into a tissue whenever possible. Most of all, please consider how your choices may impact the people around you and their overall health and well being as well, and once you've considered all of that, please make your personal, individual choices wisely.

Our health depends on it.


  1. This. Is. PHENOMENAL! I am printing it out right now to post on my desk at work. THANK YOU!!!!!!!!!

  2. AHHHH! I second Shelly's comment. You should be a life coach. : )

  3. You don't know me, but after reading this blog post, and although I had no intention of getting any of my family members flu shots...in 30 minutes, I am taking all my kids, husband and myself to get a flu shot. I have many friends with CF and several on immunosuppressants (my own kids are on them too). So I figure, I'll go and get one. While it may not do me any good or my family, maybe it will help someone else around us.

  4. Hi Piper,

    Just wanted to check you are OK... Long time no write and all. Missing your updates, but hoping it is because you are busy kicking some serious CF butt.

    Lizzy x

  5. Just a note from a devoted follower who misses your posts and hopes all is well.
    We worry when there's prolonged radio silence!
    Hope all is well in Piperland!