Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Elephant in the Room

The elephant in the room this year is a pig, and its name is influenza. Yes, you guessed it; I’m talking about swine flu. Now before we go any further, you should know that I am not a doctor, and the sight of my own blood makes me squirm. But, there’s a long history of creative hypochondria on my father’s side, and I just discovered that my maternal great-grandmother didn’t believe in the use of vaccines. So, I’m in touch with the public’s mixed feelings about today’s topic.

Take the headline in the November 10th issue of the New York Times, Fearing a Flu Vaccine, and Wanting More of It. The article, written by Doctor Perri Klass, discusses the divided public opinion regarding the H1N1 vaccine: half the public desperately wants it and can’t get it—the other half thinks it’s unsafe. There are a few like me, who fear it could be unsafe and still desperately want it, but I guess I’m in the silent minority. You see, I have the unique ability to worry no matter what happens.

As I write this, my kids have each had one dose of the vaccine. When I found out my pediatrician had the H1N1 vaccine, but might run out of it, the social desire to “not miss out” over-rode everything else. But, I don’t know if they’ll be able to get a second dose. And, I don’t want to be cavalier about what it means to get sick.

My friend’s youngest daughter did get sick, experiencing a quick-moving case of swine flu that developed into pneumonia. Because of her history of respiratory issues, the child ended up in the hospital with tubes and an IV, while her older sibling endured and fought off the virus without complication.

The story illustrates one of the things that has complicated my, and many other people’s, reactions to the swine flu. It seems the illness can be relatively mild—no more virulent than the seasonal flu—or it can be serious. And, sometimes, according to Dr. Klass’s article, it’s hard to know which sick child will get better and which will get worse.

My friend did know, however, because of something rooted in biology: maternal instinct. According to, maternal instinct is something that is not in the dictionary. It would be nice to think they were waxing philosophical, but they meant it literally: it isn’t in the dictionary. So, I went to Wikipedia and discovered maternal instinct is the bond that forms between a mother and her child. Ah, now I know.

My friend’s maternal instinct led her to research the swine flu long before it hit her daughters’ school. She knew asthma put her child at high risk, so she’d asked questions and developed a plan weeks before her daughter wheezed and collapsed in her arms. And, I have a feeling, she’d thought about the drive to the hospital well before she drove it.

We all know what it’s like to wonder—do we page the doctor—do we go to the hospital—do we wait it out or do we make our move. My friend’s advice: Follow your instinct. She said she’d rather have had to tell people she’d overreacted than tell them they’d waited too long and missed an opportunity.

In the poll last week, 40% of you said with the talk of the seasonal and swine flu you have, “kept on trucking”, while 45% of you have, "thought about avoiding certain activities but so far, kept your schedule." Only 3 % of us (and I say “us” because we must all be related to have answered this way) say you’ve, "avoided some actives, when convenient."

I asked this question about behavior because I was interested in how we moms deal with an atmosphere of uncertainty and mixed messages in our actual day to day life. What do we do when we’re told we have a national emergency but, oh, don't panic? From your answers, it looks like you’re navigating these waters pretty well.

For a while, it felt like we were being hit with a barrage of fear mongering-- the headlines, the television news teasers. It really only came down to two things: if a vaccine is available, are you going to get it, and if your kid gets sick, how will you monitor their progress, or lack of it, fighting off the illness. Those two issues were things to prepare for and we moms have the innate tools to do it.

The maternal instinct is strong and loud---as long as the white noise of the crowd uses an indoor voice now and then.


Diana said...

This is so true Sarah. It's such a tough call. So many of my college students have been sick this fall and three had the swine flu and it was awful. I actually got the vaccine yesterday because the college recommended all the professors do. I didn't really want to but wasn't sure what to do. So many opinions back and forth as to what is right. Moms have tough decisions to make.

Good Enough Mom said...

For my part...I was not too anxious about husband was the one who did all the research, called the ped's office regularly until he could get the kids their vaccines, and took them to BOTH rounds of shots (seasonal and H1N1), and he went solo on one of those trips...I was not too worried since all the kids I knew got better...but, in his doctorly way, he was a man on a mission. Since they got their vaccines, I've heard of a local healthy 6-yr-old and a healthy mid-40s woman who died recently from H1N1...I was pretty grateful for hubby's anxiety when I heard those stories!

I know this wasn't the point of your post, but you just made me think of this.

I am with you on the mixed-messages of motherhood. I could go on and on about that myself! (and do. frequently.)