Vaccinating your child is a matter of trust

I did my medical school training in a country where I saw many children die every day from preventable illnesses. Measles, diarrhea, and malnutrition were the norm. I still have vivid memories of a young child dying in my arms of severe diarrhea and dehydration. He had so much to see in this world. We had limited resources to help him. Those poor parents did not have access to clean water, let alone vaccinations. I remember telling the parents that their child had passed away and we had tried everything we could do to save the child. But in reality, had we? That child had suffered from poverty, a broken health care system, and maybe some misfortune. After seeing a few deaths of innocent children, I decided that I wasn’t brave enough to feel so helpless on a daily basis. And I wasn’t powerful enough to change the system that was so flawed. Hence, for my own personal sanity and selfishness, I ran away and decided to do my medical training in a resourceful country with a well-equipped health care system. I did not have the courage to see children die of diseases that could have been prevented.

Fast forward three years and I am starting to feel helpless again. I am standing in a room talking to parents who are refusing to vaccinate their child. They are stating many reasons, none of which I can infer. It simply does not make sense to me. And this is not because I am too arrogant about my medical education and the time I have spent learning about vaccines. It’s only because I have seen too much. I am getting flashbacks as we speak of the kids who have no access to vaccinations. It makes me angry and sad, just realizing that this child is two minutes away from a vaccine but still won’t be able to get it today.

I don’t want to get into the argument in this article about why vaccines are medically so important. I do want to explain why pediatricians are so adamant about recommending vaccines and talking to the parents at each visit despite knowing that many have made up their minds and won’t change them. We tirelessly try to our very last effort to make it happen. Some parents who are against vaccinations online have stated they have felt bullied by their pediatricians. Is it because of consumerism or part of bigger secret vaccine marketing strategy that no one is aware of? Or is it because we feel that just because we went to medical school, we are obnoxious enough to think that what we know is superior to these parents who gave birth to this child?

Last week helped me answer that question. Every day I went home from work with a sinking feeling in my stomach. One of my little patients whom I had been taking care of very closely had not been improving as fast as I had expected. I kept questioning myself if we had clinched the wrong diagnosis and were missing something. As a team, we sat together multiple times, looked back at evidence, revisited the laboratory tests a gazillion times to make sure all the pieces of the puzzle fit. I sat by the bedside of the patient’s hospitalization with the family, hoping for a fast recovery. I had no personal relationship with the patient. No, I was not the parent and did not give birth to the child. But as the child’s doctor, willingly or unwillingly, I too felt invested in the child getting better. I came to work every day, hoping just to catch a single smile. To me, it felt more than just a job you go to every day. It felt more than a marketing strategy. It felt more than arrogance as I was doubting my medical knowledge every day, only because I wanted this child to get better. Being a pediatrician has always felt like a huge responsibility to the little human beings and their families that we take care of every day. And I am certain these feelings resonate with many of colleagues in the same profession. It’s no joke. These are children we love.

In the same setting, when doctors recommend vaccinations, they are rationally using their medical knowledge that they have reviewed multiple times (because, yes, we don’t know everything), they are thinking about their experience of having seen people die from preventable illnesses (they obviously have seen too much) and they are also using their emotion because they don’t want to see any harm to a child. All they want in return is a parent’s trust.

Please vaccinate your child! They are too precious. To you and to us.

Saba Fatima is a pediatric resident.

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