This First Person column is written by Rachel Grantham who has been double vaccinated against COVID-19. For more information about CBC’s First Person stories, please see the FAQ.
I was raised by my father to be wary of vaccines.
Dad was a health-care professional. I had been vaccinated in my childhood for polio, smallpox and pertussis. Yet, for some reason, he decided that I would not receive the booster shots when I entered Grade 7. He and my mother had taken care of me through rubella, measles, mumps and chickenpox. “No more vaccines,” I remember him saying. I was strong and healthy, so what could some boosters do that my immune system could not already handle?
Dad was all about taking responsibility for one’s health by exercising, avoiding alcohol, and staying away from tobacco. Prescription drugs were a last resort. He worried about the increasing reliance on the array of pharmaceuticals that were becoming available in the 1950s and 1960s. Doctors were happy to prescribe them and patients willing to consume them. He worried about the rise of allergies and asthma in children and wondered if there was a correlation to the frequency of vaccination that was taking place. (There was not).
Dad was the chief physiotherapist at a regional hospital in southern Canada in the ’50s and ’60s. I would sometimes see him at work, watching him treat people from all walks of life. They had birth defects, war wounds, skin disorders and crippling diseases. They had been in car accidents and farming accidents. He treated pain with heat and cold, baths and UV rays.
He would hook people up into elaborate equipment or use his warm, strong hands to massage a crunchy muscle mass. He played detective when the cause of pain was unknown. With incredible precision borne of deep knowledge of anatomy and movement, he devised exercises to rehabilitate patients. He was kind but firm with those who made excuses for not doing them. He had many grateful clients.
The doctors, all male at that time, would sometimes dismiss my father’s diagnoses and treatments. They would override his recommendations with poorly formed exercises of their own. Or they would tell the patients just to take more anti-inflammatories and painkillers when the cause was unknown.
“They’re treating the symptoms,” Dad would say. “How do we find the cause if we eliminate the symptoms?”
Some days, Dad came home after working long hours, at a fraction of a doctor’s pay, frustrated and demoralized. In the meantime, doctors smoked in their clinic offices and drank gallons of booze.
My father’s command to my 13-year-old self never stopped ringing in my ears. I fixated on this order, despite vast new vaccine research over the following decades. I never once checked back with my father to see if he still felt the same way.
Challenging my assumptions
My wary stance was all tied up with honouring my father and his years of valuable work put in on the low rungs of the medical establishment. I was still rebelling against the oppressive morays of a previous era, where going to a counsellor was taboo, going to a massage therapist was weird, and the perils of smoking were ignored.
Then, one day in the early 2000s, I fell ill with a low-level fever. I developed a vicious, strangling cough that would leave me gasping for air as I hovered over the toilet bowl. It lasted for weeks. The residual effects lasted for months. I just couldn’t get well.
A visiting doctor from the N.W.T. knew what she was seeing. It was whooping cough. I was shocked. I’d had the pertussis vaccine in childhood. She explained that the protection wears off. It was then I realized what those booster shots were all about.
So much of what my father knew from his years as a physiotherapist has been proven right. But on the flip side, when Dad suffered a heart attack at age 74, I saw him cry before his bypass operation, apologizing to my stepmom for not being willing to take the cholesterol-lowering medication his doctors kept prescribing in vain over the years.
After his bypass, he dutifully took the once-snubbed pills, and even began to get flu shots. He lived almost to his 92nd birthday. COVID caught him a year ago in October 2020, in the midst of the second wave. If there had been a vaccine then, there is no question that he would have taken it.
It’s a shame that it took an illness and a heart attack to knock the stubbornness out of me and my Dad.
Today, I honour my father’s death and memory by taking the vaccine, listening with kindness to the vaccine-hesitant and then telling them my story.
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