by Dorit Reiss

IT'S PERSONAL AS WE SEE IT DORIT 44We had to get the shots to go to Nigeria.

It was a big thing. We spent months getting ready for the trip. My dad had gone ahead to start doing whatever he was supposed to be doing there, leaving my mom to attend to three little children and all the details.

While I learned to read and speak English, we packed all of our belongings, because someone else would be living in our house.

The shots were an important part of the trip. Apparently, we could get sick in Nigeria. So we had to get shots, more than other children did, and we had to take medicine every week while we lived there.

My mom said we had to get a shot for something called black pustules, which sounded like something out of a story, and a pretty scary one too. (Many years later, I learned it was called smallpox.)

IT'S PERSONAL AS WE SEE IT DORIT22I don’t remember getting the shots themselves, but it’s my earliest vaccine-related memory, and it had to do with the excitement of a trip, with packing and moving to another country, another continent, for three years. I was six and a half.

The next memory came a year later, in Nigeria. We were guests at the house of a friend, though one a year older. She had a big dog tied in the yard. It barked, and I was scared. I ran away and I fell, and scraped both knees very badly.

My parents decided I needed a tetanus shot. This was not as happy a memory: I was scared of the needle. I struggled, tried to run, and they had to hold me in order to give me the shot. Then we went for ice cream.

The next time I remember getting a vaccination was when I was 12. This time, it was a social adventure.

All the girls—and only the girls—got the rubella shot. We were told we needed it because rubella can harm babies, when we have them. We were sent in groups of five out of the class to wait near the nurse’s office, while the boys looked after us, and girls came back sporting a Band-Aid (it was hot enough for short-sleeved shirts).
Some girls would dramatically wince and rub their shoulder as they came out of the nurse’s office.

We went in alphabetical order of last name. Not for the first time, I thought bad things about my parents for sticking me with a last name that was toward the end of the alphabet, forcing me to wait so long (in Hebrew, “reish”—the name for the letter that makes the sound “R”—is only two letters from the end of the alphabet, followed only by “shin” and “tav”).

IT'S PERSONAL AS WE SEE IT DORIT 11Hey, at 12, being angry at my parents was easy. It was amazing how many things grown-ups could get wrong.

When it was my turn, it was somewhat anticlimactic—it didn’t hurt anywhere near as much as the wincing girls implied. That one didn’t even leave a scar.

The TB shot in eighth grade did. We heard horror stories about that one long before we actually had to get the shot.

First, they gave you something that to our teenage eyes was another shot in the bottom of your arm, then they gave you the actual shot that was supposed to hurt for a long, long time. And it was in front of everyone.

They gave us the shot in class, calling us one by one, while everyone looked on, petrified. Some teenagers actually screamed for that one. I promised myself I wouldn’t, and managed to keep that promise. But my arm hurt for a while after that.

It was, once again, part of teenagehood: something everyone did, and which served for stories afterward, with some of us getting mercilessly teased for our behavior during the shot. Not me. I didn’t get picked on very much generally—I kind of flew under the weather; half the time with my nose in a book, or sitting on top of a tree in the schoolyard (yes, I was a tree climber), or, with my nose in a book while sitting on top of a tree.

After that, there were no shots until our military service. Israel’s military is mostly based on mandatory service—18-year-old Jewish boys and girls enlist to serve.

First day of enlistment was all about processing: moving you from station to station to get photographed, create an ID, measure you and clothe you, and yes, give you shots, before you were sent to boot camp.

One shot was with a traditional needle, and one was by airgun. We stood in line—a group of somewhat dazed, uncertain 18-year-old girls. As with the trip to Nigeria, the shots marked a transition, the start of something both exciting and scary.

Throughout those years, vaccines were either part of a change, or part of the teenage experience. In my memory, they were associated with milestones or a life experience.

It took a family shock to give them another meaning. I was in the military still, and I was assigned by the military to be a teacher of new immigrants from Ethiopia. I lived about half an hour drive from my family home (in Israeli terms, that’s away from home—we’re a small country).

My mom called. “David has diabetes.”

IT'S PERSONAL AS WE SEE IT DORIT 33David is my youngest brother. He’s nine years younger than I, the baby of the family who was still a child when I started my military adventure.

At that time, he was ten, and had been losing weight dramatically. They found out when he fainted in school. His diagnosis of type 1 diabetes was a sea change for our family in more ways than one, but the relevant change started the following winter.

That was the first time he was hospitalized.
He had the flu, and things got really bad really quickly. We thought he was going to die. He didn’t, but it was close. And
it was close again the following year. And the following. He fell behind in school. His grades went downhill. It took work to get him back on track (but he did get back).

He was, as far as I remember, 15 years old the first time the doctors recommended a flu shot. That was the first year he was not hospitalized.

He got a flu shot every year after.
The next hospitalization was not until he was 29—and it was a short one: he had a temporary problem.

I, with the selfishness of that age, took it for granted, and since I was not living at home did not feel it as keenly as the rest of my family.

I think I only realized how much it meant to my parents in hindsight, after I got interested in vaccines, when my mom told me how that annual flu shot helped.

So, that’s when vaccines got a different meaning for the family. The value of vaccination meant a hospital-free experience for my brother, and for all of us (because when he was in the hospital, that’s where at least one of my parents was, too).

Vaccination means he does not spend time in ICU, and we do not fear for his life each year.

It’s a big deal.