I remember a boy, Cain. I delivered him at four one morning. He was Jennifer’s third son. Cain was perfect. The year was 1976. We didn’t have a meningitis vaccine in 1976.
2013. A young mother sits before me. Lucy (that’s her name) leans forward in her chair, anxious, her newborn baby in a capsule at her feet. Lucy’s love for her baby ties her in knots that she can’t undo. She needs to protect her babe from all harm, from the harm of illness and from the harms of vaccines. Lucy asks me her questions, she needs me to affirm her dread – of the vaccines:
Vaccines are unsafe, aren’t they?
Vaccines are inadequately tested, aren’t they?
Aren’t they contaminated with foreign viruses?
Don’t they contain toxic additives?
Isn’t it true they weaken the immune system?
Aren’t homeopathic preparations just as effective?
Vaccines worsen asthma, don’t they?
I am unable to answer ‘yes’ to any of these questions. I am unable to meet her need. Lucy swallows unhappily. She has been seeing me since she was a young girl. I remember vaccinating her thirty years ago. Through all sorts of troubles in her teens and in her adult relationships Lucy has come to expect comfort in my advice. But I have no comfort for her today.
Lucy tries again, appealing to me to relieve her dilemma: Infectious diseases aren’t serious anymore, are they?…Aren’t they virtually eliminated?
No, Lucy I wish they were. The truth is germs are becoming stronger, our antibiotics weaker. The germ honeymoon of your childhood and your parents’ is over. Treatments are failing, germs recovering. Only vaccination can prevent the harm that is frightening you. Only vaccines.
1977. Twelve months after his perfect arrival, Cain was feverish and crying. I could not diagnose his illness. After 48 hours he was no better, in fact he was worse. I sent him to the Children’s Hospital where they performed a lumbar puncture and diagnosed meningitis. Cain survived but was profoundly deaf ever after.
1985. Cain has a younger brother, Courtney. There are four boys now, all thriving. Cain attends a normal school where he gets by because his teacher and classmates have learned to sign. Jennifer taught them.
On the morning of May16 – it is school holidays – Jennifer packs her firstborn into the car and drives her husband Chris to where he left his car the previous night. Jennifer recalls Chris had been drinking and wasn’t fit to drive. She drops him at his car and returns home where she finds an ambulance in her street. Her brother-in-law is there and breaks the news.
That same morning in the school term holidays my wife and I take our kids to the movies. During the film my beeper goes off. I call my practice and they tell me the news.
I arrive at Jennifer’s place and knock. She comes out, throws shock-driven arms around her doctor and holds hard. Neither of us speaks. After a time, Jennifer says something I don’t understand: This will make or break our marriage.
She tells me what happened: While I was out, Christian went for a walk out the back and across the tracks. He heard the train and looked behind him. Cain was following, walking into the path of the train. Christian yelled but Cain didn’t hear. Couldn’t hear. Christian ran towards his younger brother, waving, yelling, desperate.
It was no good. The train couldn’t stop. Cain was on the tracks. Christian saw it all.
2013. Lucy stands, takes up her perfect baby, thanks her lifelong doctor and leaves unhappily.
Jennifer and I talk from time to time. Her prediction was correct: Chris changed for a time. For 6 weeks after we lost Cain Chris didn’t drink. Then it was back to the old story. A year later I left him. I carried on. I had to…there were three boys who needed me…
After seven years you sent me to a counsellor – you know, your wife – to help me to grieve. I hadn’t grieved. She helped me.
You know about the rest. The boys have come through. The eldest is still with the Krishnas. The other two are over their bad times, their wild years. They are great young men. Christian never talks about that day, never mentions Cain. He can’t. But he held me together ten years back, you know, when I was having a bad time. And Courtney, he’s a wonderful soul.
Chris never recovered. He drank and he smoked his dope. At the end he couldn’t work; then the Motor Neuron Disease got him. Courtney would go to his father. He nursed him until he passed.
I think about those moments on the tracks, the deaf boy, the frantic brother. Did Cain feel vibration underfoot? Did he see Christian’s despairing face?
Jennifer knows I feel responsible. I didn’t diagnose Cain’s meningitis. She doesn’t seem to blame me.
I remember Cain, that perfect baby. I vaccinate every kid I can.