When Ella May Wulff found out that fellow Smith College alum Annie De Groot was starting up a vaccine research institute, an idea came to mind. This would be the perfect opportunity for her to share a story about her childhood.
The following account not only highlights the importance of vaccines, but reminds us what life was like before vaccination was an option.
When I was in my mid-30s, I had pneumonia twice within a span of nine months. Each episode occurred shortly after I had had a bad chill while I already was suffering from a cold. Chest x-rays showed that the same part of my lung was affected during each pneumonia infection. My internist threatened that if I came down with pneumonia again, I’d have to have a bronchogram. He also asked, almost as an aside, “What’s a healthy young woman like you doing with pneumonia?”
I remember my response exactly. “Yes, I haven’t had it since I was five years old and had the measles.” His eyes lit up, and he pronounced, “Aha! Staph pneumonia follows measles like a shadow.” Problem solved. The pneumonia I had as a complication of measles had left a weak spot in my lung. Thank goodness for penicillin!
Fortunately for me, the first vaccine against pneumonia (I think it covered the 26 more common strains causing bacterial pneumonia) was developed not long after my year of the pneumonias. I was among the first members of the general public to learn about the vaccine, because my husband and I had kept in touch with a fellow student from our graduate school days at Oregon State University. She wrote in her annual holiday letter that she had been part of the team that developed the vaccine, which I’d been unaware of until then.
I immediately requested that my internist vaccinate me against pneumonia. I didn’t want to continue to fear that every time I caught a cold, it would turn into pneumonia. After some initial protest (“We only give it to people with chronic lung disease” “What? Pneumonia twice in one year doesn’t count?” “Well, it’s expensive.” “How much?” “Eight dollars.” “Give me the vaccine!”) from his nurse practitioner, I got my pneumonia vaccination and have not had pneumonia since then.
Things have changed a lot in the last 30 years. When I turned 60, my internist recommended that I, and every other 60-year-old patient, get the new pneumonia vaccine, which covers more strains of bacteria. The original vaccine was supposed to “last a lifetime”, but I was more than happy to have additional protection. Pneumonia is no fun at all.
I don’t remember much about that episode of measles when I was five. I remember that my bedroom had to be kept dark. I just Googled “measles dark room” and came up with a truly horrifying testament to the dangers of the antivaccination movement. After reading through much garbage in a blog, I finally got my answer: there was so much blindness as a consequence of measles that parents kept their children’s rooms dark in the hope of preventing them from going blind.
In my case, the darkness rule was violated a little. One of my playmates had gotten a new puppy, so the blinds were moved aside for a couple of minutes so that I could see the puppy. But by the time I had recovered enough to be allowed to play outside, the puppy had grown up!
I also remember that I couldn’t attend the party that was given to celebrate my grandparents’ golden wedding anniversary, even though I was the only grandchild on the U.S. side of the pond. My parents went, leaving me with a trusted babysitter. I must have taken a severe turn for the worse, because the babysitter called them home, and they called my pediatrician. He either couldn’t or wouldn’t come to see me on a Saturday night (yes, back in those days, doctors still made house calls), so they kept calling until they found a doctor who would come. From then on, that doctor was my pediatrician.
And I remember that the visiting nurse came every day to give me my shots of penicillin. Without them, I probably would have died. At least that is what my parents thought. They were scared to death.
My parents also wouldn’t let me swim in a public swimming pool until after I’d had the polio vaccines (both kinds) developed during my childhood. Too many children died or were crippled for life by polio, and public swimming pools were considered a good place to catch it.
So I cringe now when I read about the unwise decisions being made by young parents who have no experience of the really dreadful diseases that threatened children of my generation and earlier. Vaccinations have worked so well at preventing previously common diseases that these parents have no idea how many lives they are putting in jeopardy when they decide not to vaccinate their children because of the remotely possible (now thoroughly disproven) threat of autism or the tiny but well-publicized incidence of bad reactions to vaccinations.
My life was saved by the timely administration of antibiotics to cure the pneumonia that accompanied my measles, and it may well have been saved again by my pneumonia vaccination. If my story convinces one wavering parent to vaccinate her child, it will have been worth the telling.
-Ella May Wulff