Thursday, October 29, 2009

Flu Shots

I think I got my first flu shot when I was in the Army. As the member of a medical unit, our commander ordered everyone who wasn’t allergic to eggs, to get one. It seemed reasonable enough at the time. When you’re stacked four to a room in the barracks, you become very cognizant of contagion. So after three years of such conditioning it always seemed to be a given: after October 15th the uniform is sleeves down and a small band aide on the spot where you got your shot. I continued the precaution after I left the medical unit, and into civilian life. It just became a given. The one year I skipped it, caught the flu, and was on my back for almost 3 weeks, so suffice it to say, I learned my lesson.

This year, Flu Season has finally gained magna status in the news cycle. The H1N1 strain has caught our attention. To date, as many as 5000 people have succumbed to this infection, and it seems that children are the most vulnerable among us. It’s actually not uncommon for people to die of Flu, but normally it’s the elderly or those who were somehow weakened to begin with who fall victim to the viral killer.
Although the cynical side of me would say, “yeah sure, it’s only a problem when cute people die,” the reality is that we may very well have a pandemic on our hands. So, go ahead and pass over that hand sanitizer.

On October 24th, the President made if official. The 2009 Flu season is officially a National Emergency. This move was apparently to ensure that communities could get any support needed from the feds if things start to get out of hand. I have to admit. It had the desired effect. Monday morning I took my kids to our health care provider for their shot. We arrived forty minutes early, only to line up behind approximately 50 who had gotten there before us. Many were like me, the parents of school-aged children, a disproportionate amount of which wore uniforms or some other indicator of private school. This made me wonder if private schools were making the flu shot a requirement, or if this observation was more indicative of which families have access to health care. By the time a friendly young medical assistant started handing out clipboards with questionnaires, the number of people waiting had increased two fold.

As my children grew more and more anxious over thoughts of needles, I answered basic medical questions about allergies, age, medical conditions and pregnancy status. The latter was a resounding no on all three questionnaires. And then the line began to move towards the temporary tents set up in the hospital’s parking garage. Nurses in brightly patterned scrubs checked paperwork and medical cards, placed indicative stickers on paperwork and pointed patients in the towards the tents, adults on the right, families on the left.

At this point my kids are mock debating over who should go first. “Well you’re the first-born,” my younger one says. “But I put my brother’s welfare ahead of my own,” the older one replies. The nurse actually seemed amused. It turned out I was asked to go first, to show the kids how it’s done.

But before I did, I actually got questioned, “Why do you need the H1N1?”

“Um…because I have kids,” I answered. “Plus I commute on public transit!” I quickly added. That seemed to be the right answer, because I was promptly poked with two needles.

The 14-year-old was next. He immediately started talking rapidly to stall. “How much do I really need this?” He asked.

“Well,” I said. “You can get a flu shot or I can describe sexually transmitted diseases to you again.” With that his sleeve immediately went up. When it was over, he said he didn’t even feel it.

The 11-year-old mimicked his brother by stalling, but I knew better. Of the two, it’s the younger one that has the high pain threshold. A quick poke and a staccato “YOUCH!” later and we were done.

Leaving the tent, I was relieved that neither the process nor the immunizations were particularly painful, and I took note at how lucky our family is to be able to prepare for such things. And although the line was now easily 200 people long, I didn’t doubt that most of those waiting would have the same feeling when they were done as well.

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