How I Learned to Trust The Needle

Recently, a millennial came to my office and asked me if she should get vaccinated, even though her mom had never wanted her to.  I didn’t tell her what to do.  Instead, I told her why I vaccinate my own son.  Here’s what I said.


How I Learned to Trust The Needle

When my son was a couple of months old, I took him to the third of his many well-baby appointments. On that day, our pediatrician approached me tentatively. “This is the appropriate time for his vaccinations,” she informed me in a cautious, even tone.

“Load him up!” I screamed, “Give him a double!” My baby son looked up at us and blinked, unperturbed by the hysterics to which he had become accustomed in utero. I signed some papers, and the doctor vaccinated him against an assortment of maladies. More than a decade has passed since then, and today I have a healthy kid whose only fault is that he mostly takes after me. I am thoroughly grateful, despite the fact that I am not quite sure whom to thank. He is ten years old.

My dad is ninety-one years old, and is equally healthy if not more so. He has concrete plans for becoming 92, and then eventually 102, and Heaven help any medical professional at the Mayo Clinic who isn’t working hard enough to make this happen. As per usual, my good fortune exceeds what I deserve, even to the fact that my father’s exquisite sense of humor has persisted fully intact. His jokes are simultaneously dry yet cheerful, derisive yet kind, ridiculous yet sensible — it is from the juxtaposition that I draw so much delight — and from the fact that I’m never really sure whether he’s putting me on.

My father, born in 1923, tells me stories. They start out fantastically, like the one about the two monkeys living in a concrete cell that served as the town’s “zoo” during the 30s (I never got a straight answer about where they went during the winter). It is uncanny, though, how every story ends on familiar ground: adults harangued children for listening to too much radio, warning that it would rot their minds; political slogans justifying the Second World War were mothballed and then employed verbatim for the Korean War and then trotted out again for the Viet Nam War. When my father tells stories about the past it seems that my life is always the ending, the purpose or the moral. He truly believes my generation to be on equal footing with his, and that our shared present represents a constellation of mistakes and problems that have been solved before and will be solved again.

My dad tells a story about when he was seven and his friend’s father (who had been in World War One) decided that it was high time for both boys to learn how to shoot a gun and specifically took them down to the elementary schoolyard to practice because it was the only place where you could be certain that you wouldn’t hit anybody’s horse. My father also tells about his first day of school in 1929, when only half of his class from the previous year showed up. The other half was being kept at home either by polio itself or by their mother’s terror of it. He keenly remembers being a frightened child helpless against a monstrous fear that had subjugated even the all-powerful grown-ups that seemed all to be speaking in hushed tones about 1916. My father goes on to tell about how happy he was in 1955 to learn that a polio vaccine would be available for his own children. And so in 1975, I stood in line and claimed my magic sugar cube while US astronauts and Soviet cosmonauts shared orbit; the Space Race was finally over and we had all won. From my father’s perspective, vaccinating me was an act of love and care, of freely giving me something that he never got. And this is the core practice of parenting, or so I am learning. I often tell my son about my miserable month-long bout with chickenpox when I was twelve, and about how glad and grateful I am that he will not have to go through the same. For he is, of course, precious to me – just as precious as unvaccinated children are to their unconvinced mothers.

I am a laboratory chemist (more or less) whose original techniques have found a serendipitous utility within medical research. When I first began to apply for funding from the National Institutes of Health, my then-institution required me to take an extensive online course in human subjects research ethics. Eager to do anything that might lead to funding, I launched into many hours designed to impress upon me the significance and necessity of the World Medical Association’s Declaration of Helsinki, which is the international standard document of ethical principles for medical research. Within that course I learned about the horrible, almost inconceivable, abuses in medical research that have taken place in America, from Tuskegee to Davenport, from Holmesburg Prison to the Stanford Prison. And not as any Wikipedia summary, either, I had to learn the details — the design of these experiments and the sad goals under pursuit – how rationale had been misguided and then transfigured by madness time and again. “Holy Hell,” I remember thinking to myself, “You’d have to be out of your tree to agree to participate in medical research in this country.” During the next several years, however, my alarm was tempered by real-life interactions with medical researchers at three different institutions, all of whom have won my unqualified trust, respect and admiration, and some of whom suffer me to call them at any hour of the day or night while we strive quixotic to address what feels like an insurmountable problem: America’s sugar addiction.

Lately I’ve been dismayed to see that in response to the recent measles outbreaks, Science communicators have launched an energetic campaign attempting to shame and/or guilt parents (particularly mothers) into vaccinating their children, to ostracize unvaccinated children from public and private institutions and to generally slander the intellect of anyone who dares to publicly mistrust the science of vaccination. Now, I don’t claim to be some sort of sci-comm expert or anything, but I do know that this approach will not work. How do I know that? Because people are constantly going around telling me what to do, and I respond by go around never doing any of it. When I actually do do things, there’s a pattern. I do what has been consistently modeled for me by the people whom I trust. I’ve internalized this trust as learning and concrete benefits have come to me by way of its application. In contrast, I see no benefit in further alienating the people in whom Science has made no such effort to foster trust, particularly while the stakes are so very high.

Science’s self-righteous disdain towards what we deem to be ignorance is an expression of our fear. It is posturing meant to protect us from what we dare not face: that the public’s mistrust is something that we have earned. In no arena has mistrust been more fully earned than within medical research, with egregious examples occurring even in our present century. The true pity is that although desperate malignity within scientific research is extremely rare, Science routinely reinforces the public’s mistrust with our everyday foibles — by talking down to people, by excluding people, by sending mixed signals while seeking attention, by not insisting upon subtlety and complexity from the journalists who interview us. To actually address why parents opt out of vaccinations, Science must ask itself difficult and uncomfortable questions about why such a large and fundamental trust-gap exists, and what we plan to do about it.

I trust Science because I am consistently exposed to its best side. As a research scientist, I interact daily with women and men who are working very hard for very little, in decades-long pursuit of dreams that, with luck, might come true once in a century. For my part, I know only the basics of how vaccines work, but my direct life experiences make me confident that the testing of these vaccines and the scrutiny of their results are conducted with the same care and integrity that was hammered into me during my scientific training. I willingly and eagerly vaccinate my child because I trust that the needle delivers 0.25 cc of the best of what our generation is capable, though my eyes are also open to the damage that medical science has wrought. The world that my father grew up in was plagued by many ills – war, hunger, injustice — and most of them are still with us. Polio is not. The polio vaccine, the smallpox vaccine, the measles vaccine, the whooping cough vaccine, the chickenpox vaccine, and the rest, are more than medicine: they are the precious few concrete examples of how we can rise as a people, and how Science is most noble when it labors in the tradition of that rising. Every year, I honor that tradition first by vaccinating my son, and then by returning to my lab to work yet another long day.


Do you wish to obtain vaccinations? This site can help you figure out where to go, and how much it will cost (if anything).