I took my daughters to a walk-in clinic last summer to get their school physical forms filled out. I wanted to bypass the pediatrician’s office for a few reasons. The biggest reason was because it’s excruciatingly painful to sit and wait to see the doctor knowing I have a million other things to take care of on a daily basis. Another reason to go to the walk-in was because I thought surely the Doc in a Box place would be much faster. And, the third reason was because I didn’t want to hear the same textbook answer got from the pediatrician the year before about the vacant boxes on the girls’ vaccine records I must show as part of the exam.
As mother of five, my life is extremely busy. I have no time to sit and wait for someone to check off little boxes on a piece of paper stating that my healthy kids are healthy. Our schedule just doesn’t allow for that kind of sitting and waiting. But, since the paperwork needed to be completed I thought I would veer off the beaten path for what I’d hoped was a quicker option. (Note to self: Doc in a Box is not a short cut and has the potential to suck valuable time away from any family, including very busy ones.)
Just a few weeks prior, my husband had taken our typical son to a walk-in clinic for some foot pain he’d been experiencing. Since it was the weekend when the foot pain worsened, the walk-in was our only option. Just as they were about to walk out the door, I yelled out,” Hey, take the school physical form and see if you can get that done, too! Just tell them we’ve got the vaccine exemption paperwork so they don’t bug you about getting any shots today, okay?” Off they went.
A few (long) hours later my husband came home with our son. The foot was going to be fine. I hated to speed past the foot care information we were going to have to do for the next few days, but I couldn’t help myself and blurted out, “So, what did the doc say about the physical? About vaccines? About the exemption? You know we don’t need to be so nervous about that, but what a record we have with our other doctors. Sheesh, it’s like gearing up for battle every time one of the kids has to be seen, ‘Why are you here? What do you need? How many vaccines are we going to give them today?’ Come on, already. It’s like a broken record….” I cut myself off.
“Oh, sorry, honey. I’ll be quiet. What did the doctor said? Did you get the physical completed?”
My husband stood there and smiled knowing eventually I’d hop off my soapbox. “Well, it was actually really interesting,” he started.
“Interesting? How so? What did he say? Was it uncomfortable? Did you have to fight anything?” Oops. I closed my mouth, covered it with my hand and mumbled, “I’m sorry. I’ll let you tell the story.”
I sat down to listen and motioned for my husband to continue.
“Well, it was a female doctor, a grandmother in fact who was a family practice physician. She said the foot wasn’t so bad and showed me how to clean it. When that was done I asked if we could do the school physical. Since it was technically a different appointment we had to go back to the front, sign in again and wait to be called back. We were called back to the exam room a little bit later and started going over the form. When it was time to ask about the vaccines I told her we weren’t going to do them. She had looked at the vaccine record already and had offered to catch up on a few that were “missing”. I explained no, we have another son with mito disease who reacted badly to his shots. The doc looks right at me and said, ‘I have a grandson who has similar problems.’ Turns out he also has autism. This doc’s daughter, the boy’s mom thought the vaccines did something to the kid. This doctor helps the daughter now and understood why I said we were all set with vaccines. I didn’t have to fight her like you’ve had to fight doctors. She just said okay and moved onto the next part of the exam.”
Holy smokes! A doctor who is living near, breathing with, helping out and watching over her own grandson go through what Ronan does? Knowing I had other school physicals to get done I wanted so badly to jump in the car and get them taken care of that very afternoon by this promising open-minded doctor!
After hearing the rest of the story, that this doctor spoke “our language” with things like therapies we too have tried, supplements I still order and with medications that have helped some kids on the spectrum I was ready to quit our regular pediatrician on the spot. I’d heard that many parents ditch their pediatrician after getting read the riot act for not vaccinating. While our pediatrician didn’t berate us, it was becoming increasingly uncomfortable to have “The Talk” with her partner who was more condescending than educating when the vaccine topic came up, and who we always seemed to be scheduled with on our recent visits. I thought maybe family practice might be the way to go. Plus, Ronan sees more specialists anyway, so maybe I could try to manage his every-once-in-awhile medical needs with the Doc in a Box while keeping his specialists for the other more complicated needs that bring us to them anyway. It was worth it to find out who this doctor was and if she’d be interested in joining Ronan’s medical team.
By the time I listened to my husband recount the events of my son’s visit to the doctor, I was preparing to run out the door with the other kids and their school forms. I first checked to make sure the office was still open since it was already well into Saturday afternoon. I called the number on the receipt and dialed the walk-in clinic. Too late. They were closed for the day and wouldn’t be open again until Monday morning. I’d have to be patient and wait a few days.
I imagined the connection the Doc in A Box doctor/grandmother and I would make, the conversations we’d have, the referral list she’d make, and maybe even the friendship I could start with her daughter so that I could meet this doctor’s grandson who sounded similar to my own son. It would be a nice break from the sometimes nervous situations I feel I’m in with our regular doctor. A walk-in clinic would be a place where no one would know my reputation or where they’d have no history of how adamant I am about certain procedures. We’d walk in, get what I wanted done for my kids and walk out. No past, and potentially no future. Only take care of the now, and move on. The more I thought about it, the nicer it all sounded.
The next week arrived and I packed my two youngest in the car leaving the others at home with my husband. It was much later in the day when we set out for the walk-in clinic. It was in fact early evening when we arrived, and the place was empty. I signed us in, registered the kids for their physicals and asked who was working that evening requesting the same doctor my husband saw. The receptionist said, “Who?” I said her name clearer and was told, “Nooo, no one here with that name.” Well, when you’re as busy as I am and details like remembering exactly which Doc in a Box address it is you’re supposed to go to, but that piece of information goes right out of your brain, you show up at the wrong walk-in clinic. Our next few days were chock-a-block full with this particular evening being the only one I had available to get these school physicals done. I had no other choice but to take the appointments right then and there. I was crushed that I made a foolish mistake by turning into the wrong clinic, but thankful that this group was able to see us right away. I sat in the waiting room for just a few moments. My little girls were called back, so I got my game face on and walked them to the exam room.
A young man with broken English greeted me. Scanning the forms the doctor asked if I had any concerns about the girls’ health. I replied no and that we were just there for school physicals. Next he looked at their vaccine records and the mostly empty boxes with nary a pen mark or date stamp on them. As he stared, his pen hovered over the boxes. A confused look spread across his face. “Here we go,” I thought. He brought the tip of his pen to the first box, the second, the third now appearing to count how many empty spaces he saw. As if using the pen as a pointer one by one, he continued to go down the record placing the tip of the pen just over the tiny boxes. Stopping over several he seemed to write something in the air before moving on. When the doctor stopped staring at my daughters’ papers he finally looked up. His baffled look met my secure gaze. Our eyes locked. Out tumbled question after question.
Speaking out loud but not directly to me he started:
You didn’t start this series?
Do you have these vaccines recorded somewhere else?
Did you know they are very late to catch up on several?
He finally made eye contact again and asked, “Are you saying these girls have not been vaccinated?”
Without going into the every detail I could that backs up our family’s decision, I kept my answers short.
“The girls are as vaccinated as we want them to be.” I grinned and then waited for him to absorb my response.
Another barrage of questions:
Who have they seen?
What is their health like?
How do you avoid sicknesses and communicable diseases?
Before he could continue I thought, “Good Lord, look at them! Look at these children of mine! They are able to breathe! To EAT! To SLEEP! To THINK and PLAY! They are not freaks. They are happy, healthy, active, silly, obnoxious (of their own volition) normal children! Open your eyes, Buddy!”
Very politely I said, “They are healthy, very happy and typical. We keep them as healthy as we can using supplements and vitamins, by eating mostly organic and by avoiding other people when we know they are sick. I don’t think any of that is quite unusual, and in fact living like that is helpful for any family really.”
Before he spoke, he took a few seconds to take everything in. “But, how will they get into school?”
Ahhh. Deflecting with the school “requirements” question. Classic.
“Oh, we have the form already signed for vaccine exemptions,” I replied confidently. “You know about that, don’t you?” I added.
“Exemptions…?” and his voice trailed off. He flipped the forms and the girls’ records over possibly thinking I’d fooled him by having the reverse side filled out with the information he expected to see.
“Tell me about the exemptions and why you get them. Please.” He was obviously clueless to some degree but genuinely curious.
I let him know that every state except for a few in the US offered some kind of vaccine exemption. Because of my son’s negative vaccine reactions we could pursue a medical exemption but garnering a religious or philosophical exemption would be quite easy for any parent to obtain as long as they knew where to find that information, and more importantly, if they knew that they had that right.
The doctor’s head bobbled a bit, not in agreement but not disagreeing either. “So, this exemption paper, you have that already? A doctor didn’t need to review it or sign it?”
“Nope, no doctor signature needed. The school is already aware of our “status” and said they’d accept the form. We just need to get the physical portion done, and that’s why we’re here today.”
A few minutes went by with neither one of us speaking. Then, without hesitation he shared his own personal story. Not talking like a doctor anymore he told me he had been born and raised in a third-world country. He had no vaccines until the age of 16. Soon after that he arrived in the US. Where he was from no one pushed vaccinations like the doctor he encountered here do. He was surprised, and it left an impression on him as he went through school. He finished quickly saying, “All of them…pushing shots…it’s what they do. I respect you and your choice. Thank you for coming in.”
It was grossly apparent the doctor was willing to listen and was capable of respecting that vaccinating or not was a parent’s personal choice. He’d been in my own shoes as an individual before he put on his starch-white lab coat. He was probably bombarded with how “life-saving” vaccines have saved “so many lives” while reading his medical textbooks. Knowing that he survived in a third-world country for as long as he did without vaccinations must have given him reason enough to question why the US doctors force so many vaccines so early in life. Pondering all of that and what I had shared, he was able to look at me with curiosity but also respect. The doctor probably said what he was did about my girls’ vaccine records because he was likely being paid to say it. Until he heard my side of the story he discovered his scripted vaccine conversation had no place in our exam room. He was not going to be a straight up vaccine salesman like countless other doctors I’ve encountered have turned into.
I think I delayed the young doctor long enough, so he put the papers down and started the exams. Both girls checked out fine, got their school forms signed and we were ready to leave. Before I got up, the doctor said, “You know I really understand your opinion and I appreciate how much you shared, but do consider at some point that whatever natural stuff you use to help your kids…they might need more. You don’t want those diseases that anyone can catch which could bring your children harm. I’m not saying go get the shots right now, but if you need to take some action at least consider them. I’d be happy to help you and go over whatever it is that concerns you. I know it’s a big decision for parents, you have a lot going on as a mom—making sure they are healthy, teaching them how to be ready for life, worrying about what they’ll be exposed to. Just consider that vaccines could be an answer for you at some point.”
Walking into this Doc in a Box practice might have been a wrong turn according to my driving directions, but how exhilarating to have such a profound discussion without all the emotion some of my other conversations with doctors have been. As we finished up the last portion of the appointment I looked up at the doctor again. After our last exchange his voice trailed off, but he had a glimmer in his eyes. He knew that I was standing firm in my decision. His vax sale wasn’t going to happen with my kids, but his eyes still had a glimmer like something good just happened right in front of him.
I was stunned, not in the way I usually am after hearing “The Talk” from other doctors who try to add grief or unnecessary disparaging comments. This doctor was attempting to ask me to weigh the pros and cons while offering his knowledge as the professional. Granted, he was still pushing, convincing and selling vaccines as the “only” answer for warding off supposedly preventative diseases, but his attempt was somewhat sincere. He appreciated me, and I he for his honesty in divulging personal information.
I nodded my head toward the doctor as I gathered my purse, our paperwork and my little girls’ hands. I waited to speak as I collected my thoughts. “You know, I understand you are in a position to provide only certain types of treatments. Because we witnessed firsthand the devastating effects of vaccines I do spend a lot of time making these very important considerations and decisions for my children. You are right that it is very difficult to weigh all factors and to consider what has become a norm for the rest of society. I am positive right now that the decisions our family has made are correct, for the right reasons and ones we can and will confidently live with. But, thank you so much for listening, really listening and for asking questions about what I had say. I don’t usually get that kind of response from medical providers.”
I stood up and said thank you. My children trailed next to me as we rounded the corner. The doctor walked us to the receptionist area, wished us luck and watched us leave. I wonder if he pinched himself after we left wondering if what he just experienced was just a dream: well-informed Mom willingly brings children to the doctor’s office and leaves without vaccines. Say it isn’t so! But, it was. Maybe I shared just enough information to pique his interest to do some of his own research about vaccine reactions and vaccine exemptions. Who knows, maybe he’d one day consider thinking outside of the pharmaceutically-laden box when another parent just like me walks in the door.
Cathy Jameson is a Contributing Editor for Age of Autism.