General One Change at a Time

One Change at a Time: Immunizations

When I was a young nurse, I met a person who used a “clam shell respirator” to help them breathe. When I met this person, they had been using this device for over 20 years. They wore it every day, 24 hours a day, except for a few minutes each day to clean the skin under the device. A clam shell respirator looks almost exactly like the name says—like a clam shell. It was a hard case that fit around the chest and had seals at the neck, waist, and arms to hold out air. The way it worked was that it would pull a vacuum in the shell every few seconds to help this person expand their chest so they could inhale. Then it would release the vacuum, collapsing their chest to help them exhale. Without the device, this person would quickly become short of breath to the point where they would turn “blue”. To this day, whenever I think of immunizations, I think of this person and their daily struggle to breathe.

I think of them because the reason this person had that clam shell respirator was that, as a child, they had polio. That disease so damaged the bones and muscles in that person’s chest that they could not expand it without help. That respirator was very cutting-edge technology in the days when polio killed a large number of people and caused irreversible musculoskeletal damage to many more. But it never fixed the issue; then, and even now, there is still no cure for polio. The only effective way to avoid the ravages that polio causes to the body is prevention, which means immunization.

When Jonas Salk, in 1955, invented the polio vaccine, he was a national and international hero. People across the planet stood in lines for hours to get that revolutionary vaccination. This vaccine was so effective that, in my 30 years of nursing, I have yet to see an active case of polio.

Unfortunately, I am saying “have yet to” because, nationally, immunization rates are decreasing. We are starting to see outbreaks of diseases that, for much of my nursing career, were thought to be completely irradiated in this country—diseases like measles, rubella, and even polio. The diseases we currently immunize against can cause horrible damage if people survive them, from scarring and deformities to chronic health problems like scarred lungs, musculoskeletal issues, and infertility. Then there is the “if people survive them” part. World history is rife with stories of the diseases we currently immunize against having wiped out entire communities. In some of the developing countries, these diseases still kill and damage people, totaling in the thousands each year.

I will be the first person to say you have the absolute right to decide what is best for you and your health. Yet, as I say that, I also strongly advise that you base your decisions about health care on informed and well-researched sources, not social media or someone with something to gain. While there are many credible resources available, my go-to sources that have no financial bias and are well researched are the Centers for Disease Control and the National Institutes of Health. If you are searching for a good source not tied to the US government, look at the Joanna Briggs Institute’s website. These sources employ solid research techniques and do not profit from the studies they present.

Then there are people who, for a variety of reasons, like allergies or severe immune system issues, cannot take immunizations. People with these conditions depend on the rest of us being immune to keep them safe. So, as you consider immunizations, remember that it’s not just you; it could be the infant in your home or the elderly neighbor that your immunity helps protect as well.

For many of us, immunizations have been around so long that we have never seen the devastation these diseases can cause in communities. Quite frankly, I hope I never see anything even close to the historical accounts. COVID-19 was the worst thing I have ever seen in my career, and I dare not imagine anything worse. I hope getting immunized is not simply a mindless change but that it becomes a lifestyle habit. If you are debating whether to get immunized, please speak with your primary health care provider about the immunizations that are recommended for you and your loved ones. Ask them questions about the pros and cons of immunization, so you can make the best decision for your health.

Carol A. Cates, MSN, MBA, RN
Chief Nursing Officer
Odessa Regional Medical Center

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