There was no such thing as a varicella vaccine when I was growing up. Getting the chicken pox was a fact of life, a rite of passage for everyone. Except for me. Whereas other parents would purposefully expose their children to a friend's kid with chicken pox, my mother ran the other way. She thought she was protecting me, but in reality she left me with no immunity to a childhood illness that is much more dangerous if you contract it as an adult.
While I was volunteering at a Ronald McDonald House about 20 years ago, they suffered a chicken pox outbreak and would not allow volunteers in unless they were immune. On the off chance I had experienced either a mild, undetectable case as a child or an unfortunate case of amnesia, I was tested. Alas, my mother had done an excellent job of quarantining me, and I had to sit on the sidelines until there was no longer a pox on their house.
I never gave chicken pox another thought until I got pregnant. Then, on some medical history patient intake form, I marked I had never been immunized against it, and my OB/GYN warned me it could be especially dangerous while pregnant. Unfortunately, it was too late for me to get the vaccine as it contains a live (albeit weakened) virus.
For about four years, between being pregnant, trying to conceive, and nursing, I never received the vaccine. Finally, when my twins went in for a checkup shortly after weaning, the pediatrician realized I hadn't been immunized yet and postponed their shots until I was inoculated. So, I called my family doctor who phoned in a vaccine prescription for me right away. However, when I went to pick it up, I discovered my insurance would not cover a vaccine purchased from a pharmacy, and it would cost me $250 out-of-pocket.
The sticker shock resulted in me arriving home sans vaccine. My husband and I tried making calls to our insurance company and other pharmacies, doctors, and hospitals to no avail. We had entered insurance hell where the insurance company would only cover vaccines bought directly from a doctor, but no doctor within 50 miles of us kept adult varicella vaccine on hand, nor could they order the vaccine themselves. At long last, I tracked down the vaccine to the infectious disease department at the state university hospital and secured an appointment.
After filling out a plethora of forms, answering redundant questions from three different people over the course of an hour, and being reminded about all the possible side effects so many times that I almost chickened out, they finally gave me the damn shot. "Ha! That wasn't so bad after all," I thought as I scheduled my booster shot in 28 days' time. Moments later, I started to feel woozy. I climbed under the covers when I got home, and not until two days later did I emerge feeling slightly human again.
I went about my daily business, somewhat dreading my followup appointment, when about two weeks later I received a call from my son's pre-school. They asked if I would come and take a look at a few bumps he developed on his belly. They were pretty sure it was a bug bite of some kind, but he was scratching them fiercely. When I arrived, the itching had subsided, but the bumps looked mighty suspicious. Suddenly I felt nauseous. Could it possibly be chicken pox?!?
I jumped in the car and off we went to the pediatrician's office (closed for lunch), the grocery store parking lot (while I made frantic calls to friends and other doctors) and then finally the local urgent care clinic. They don't normally see children but make an exception for extraordinary children of hysterically sobbing mothers. $75 got me a doctor who took one look and declared him pox-free.
The entire ordeal lasted just under two hours. I was so tightly wound at this point I was almost in tears. What if he HAD had the chicken pox? Would I have been forced to keep him away from his baby sisters who were probably still too young to be exposed? Without my booster shot, would I have needed to stay away from him too? And with no family around, who would have helped us care for a poxed kid who loves to snuggle?
Luckily, the catastrophic scenarios looping through my head never happened. But it did make me think about vaccines with a new perspective. I felt grateful for the millions of people who vaccinated their families, thus helping to keep my family protected from getting chicken pox while we were highly vulnerable to it. I am not much of a conformist but getting my family immunized was one time where I was quite at peace with joining the herd.