by Karen Ernst
I could be telling my story as a grieving or wizened mother. Instead, my now six-year-old son is playing in the next room, and what happened is more about what didn’t happen.
My youngest child was born ten days before his brother’s fifth birthday. I had been despondent that their birthdays were so close together. Did I just crash my child’s birthday celebration with a baby who would still have that new baby smell?
I was determined to make his birthday special.
When his preschool teachers told me their end-of-the-year bicycle bash would land on his birthday, I figured I could play that off as his birthday being so extra special that he got to do his favorite thing (ride his bike) at preschool with his friends. With popsicles! My husband took the day off work, and I stayed with the newborn. Other parents were there, too.
And so was chickenpox.
We didn’t know chickenpox had been invited to the birthday/year-end bicycle party. Everyone seemed healthy, but one mother/son pair were contagious. We just didn’t find out until later.
What chickenpox didn’t know was that my five-year-old was immune. He had received his first varicella vaccine shortly after his first birthday, and his body had immediately gone to work making antibodies and memory cells that would protect him should he ever come in contact with the virus. So that fateful day when the uninvited party guest met him, my son was protected.
And his newborn brother was also protected.
You see, had I decided that chickenpox wasn’t a big deal or that I didn’t like vaccines or that celebrities make more sense than doctors, I might have decided against the vaccine. In that case, chickenpox would have come home with us. We would have had an ill child in close proximity to a newborn, and chickenpox in newborns is a big deal. Newborn babies are at risk for serious complications—including death—from chickenpox.
But that didn’t happen. Instead, we came home, had more birthday celebrations, followed by six more years of birthday celebrations. We value vaccines because of what didn’t happen, but also because of the years’ worth of joy that did happen.