I’ll never forget the feeling of falling, endlessly falling. I was lying in my room, bed oriented toward the door. I felt bigger than normal, as if I was expanding, slowly but inevitably turning into Rabelais’ Gargantua. The loneliness was deep, almost impenetrable. I looked out at the room around me and down the hall outside the door. Everything had collapse to two dimensions. Though I could dig no deeper into the blankets, I was dropping, moving backward out of the scene.
It was the sickest I’d ever been. From what I remember, my mother put the thermometer under my tongue. I had a temperature of close to 106 degrees. She panicked. We never went to the hospital except for lacerations, of which I had plenty when I was a kid. A sick kid with a fever wasn’t a reason to put family finances in questions.
She filled the bathtub with cold water and put trays of ice in it. It was hard enough getting out from under the covers and into what seemed like a very cold room. My skin was sensitive, like raw nerves. She made me get into the tub and lay down. I screamed, the agony of that water on searing hot flesh making me think that this was the end of the world.
My head felt like it was going to slip right out its skin, the bloating, the blowing up of my skull like a balloon. Meanwhile, the swelling under my ears shot sharp pains up the sides of my neck. The cold didn’t do a thing to stave off the terrible pains. In fact, it made them worse.
My mother poured cold water from a pitcher over my head, shoulders, and upper torso. I could not quit screaming. My throat hurt from it. She looked more worried than I’d ever seen her. My siblings were gathered around the tub behind mom, who was on her knees.
I started to shiver, uncontrollable spasms shooting up from my toes through my mid-section and into the shoulders and neck. I don’t know how long I was in that tub but time passed so slowly it seemed forever. After what seemed an age, my mother stood me up and wrapped me in a towel. Crying and trembling, I couldn’t move. She had to carry me back to bed.
Again, she checked my temperature. The fever had fallen a couple of degrees. The blankets and sheets felt as if they had just come out of the freezer. Over time, the warmth returned. My head felt it had swollen again, and the awful feeling of falling returned. I was so scared, I cried out for my siblings to save me. I reached out a hand to them, but they seemed impossibly far away, as if they stood on the other side of the room.
I couldn’t understand why my mother and brother and sisters were putting me through this misery. I felt as if I had no friends, no one to turn to. After a time, I must have fallen asleep, as the next thing I knew, the room was dark. This made things even scarier. I really was alone. I was afraid to call out, thinking I would wake the evil spirits in the night.
At some point, my mother came back into the room with my dad. They checked my temperature again, and it was down to a manageable 103. My head no longer felt swollen, but the puffy baseballs under my ears smarted. My midsection felt like someone had rubbed me with sandpaper.
It was many years before I discovered that I’d contracted mumps. A devastating disease that isn’t usually fatal, mumps can cause complications include hearing loss, sterility, meningitis, and encephalitis, which may, by itself, cause brain damage and other problems. The fever alone can cause death or brain damage.
I was only six years old when I got sick. This episode haunted me for most of my childhood. I never forgot the terror of a world turned into something that looked like a postcard, as well as the sinking feeling I was falling off the face of the earth. The kind of loneliness I felt during that episode was so deep that every instance of feeling lonely in my life has been bearable. Nothing was as bad as mumps. I have suffered fevers, particularly when I had chickenpox and bad cases of the flu. Never have I felt like a furnace, however. And though My mother put me in cool baths a few times when I was really sick, I never suffered the agony of that bout of mumps.
I look back on that episode and ask a couple of questions: Why, when my parents were insistent on vaccinating their children, didn’t I have the mumps vaccine? This answer is easy, I think. The vaccine for mumps was only created in 1967 and may not have been widely available when I got sick. Why would any parent decide not to vaccinate their children and put them in danger of going through what I had to? Since widespread availability of the vaccine, incidence of the disease have dropped 99 percent.
This brings me to the thorny issue of these people who insist on not vaccinating their children. Can’t they imagine the kind of hell that mumps, measles, or rubella can cause? What do they hope to achieve? Where does the anti-vaxxer impulse come from? Certainly, these people must love their children. Millions of people have received vaccines with no side-effects. They must see that their children are safer with the shots than not.
I understand a few years ago, some faulty studies linked vaccines with increased incidences of autism. But this has been roundly rejected. Some people I once admired are vehement anti-vaxxers, including Jim Carrey and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. This affects my attitude toward them and their work. They are menaces to public health, putting children and adults at risk for the kind of sickness and horror I went through.
Otherwise intelligent people are in on the anti-vaxxer crusade. A recent outbreak of measles in Washington state is related almost directly to this insane and anti-intellectual, anti-science trend for some parents to eschew vaccination. When the disease broke out, anti-vax parents had second thoughts and crowded into clinics to get the shot.
I know that Americans like their freedom and consider themselves devotees of individualism. Laws in many states allow parents to skip vaccination on religious or personal grounds. Other states do not have this loophole. At the risk of sounding like I know better, I believe that vaccinations should not be a choice. It ought to be mandatory, period. Imagine for a minute if, during the anti-smallpox efforts, some people decided they knew better. In this case, we would still have that terrible disease to deal with.
I know I’ll get sick again. I know that I will suffer fevers and lung and sinus infections. I will come down with the common cold. I may even come down with cancer at some point in my life. But I’ve had the mumps and will not have it again. As an adult, I’ve been vaccinated for mumps/measles/rubella. It’s a simple shot. It’s a simple choice. I wish I could give those anti-vaxxers a taste of what being really, truly diseased feels like. If I could, maybe I could save a child from what I’ve gone through.