trust, fear, and being right

I learned today that somebody I know contracted pertussis, or whooping cough, from a coworker, and then passed it on to her unvaccinated children. She and her children have been ill for weeks, and the bacterial infection was diagnosed and treatment was begun three days ago. Her children will return to school and daycare on Monday. She, however, is not well enough to return to work. (Pertussis, if not treated early, will hit an adult hard.)

I could go on for days about my feelings about the choice not to vaccinate oneself or one’s children. (Weeks, even.) It’s perhaps enough to say that I find that choice to be one that is not the most informed, and one that is based on a highly questionable risk assessment. But that’s just my opinion. As my husband said, “I can understand why somebody would come to the decision to vaccinate. I can understand why somebody would decide against it.”

I guess I can, too. It all depends on who and what you trust. One might not take much stock in what the medical community does, or recommends. One might not hold much faith in the pharmaceutical industry, or, especially now, the compounding pharmacy industry.

There are risks we face, every day. We weigh odds, we make decisions, and we have to deal with whatever that yields.

Six years ago, for example, I ignored a 5cm tumor in my neck–visible to anybody even five feet away. Inexplicably, I simply couldn’t see it. My husband could see it. My mother-in-law, who visited at the time, could see it. My former boss could see it. They told me what they saw. I thought, “Nah, I’m fine.” I weighed some sort of risk in my mind. I decided, for some reason, that they were incorrect to have concern. They tend to worry about a lot of things, anyway, I thought.

Why did I dismiss them? Looking back, I think I was scared. I did not want to have a problem. I do not like problems, as I rarely can control them. So, I convinced myself there was no problem, and if there was, it wasn’t the same one they were concerned about; my big old neck would return to its normal size at some point. Plus, how could they know more than me?

Over a year later, soon after the birth of our son, the obstetrician who ended up delivering him, who had never seen me during prenatal visits, examined my neck at my follow-up appointment post-delivery, and told me to get an ultrasound. I listened to the doctor. I didn’t listen to my husband, mother-in-law, or former boss. But I listened to the doctor. I had delivered a baby before (our daughter), and the obstetrician then did not examine my neck (no need to). This one, though, did. He broke a pattern in my mind. It woke me up.

I had an ultrasound. I remember reading the imaging report and the word “neoplasm” jumped out at me. I think it even had its own shocking “dunh dunh DUNH” sound–in my mind, at least (by the way, it’s a horrible word to google at any point, but especially after giving birth to a child). Due to its size and location (within the right half of my thyroid gland) a biopsy was done. The biopsy results were “benign.” Really? I thought. I had done a lot of reading on the subject. It didn’t seem possible.

I got a second opinion, from my former boss’ colleague (an endocrinologist): “I don’t care what the results say. That growth is too big and they only took three samples of tissue. They should have taken seven. If you were my daughter I’d recommend surgery.” He confirmed what I had read (quite literally, the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists Medical Guidelines for Clinical Practice).

So I did, now having fully converted from an “I’m fine” nonchalance to an “I’m going to die” doom spiral.

Still unconscious on the table, they conducted a freeze pathology of the half-thyroid they removed, and found cancer. They removed the other half of my thyroid. I was home the next day, nursing our six-month-old son, feeling irresponsible and stupid for not having had my neck checked out sooner.

There was a bright side during my season of denial. We brought our son into the world. Had I weighed risks differently, he would have never been born. (Surgery and subsequent radio-iodine treatment would have precluded pregnancy for six to 12 months. Perhaps another child would have been born at a later time, but not him.) It’s a very glorious, blindingly bright side.

Back to my friend and her children with whooping cough. A few weeks before that surgery I had, she had told me of a friend of hers who had a growth on his neck, but he simply changed his diet and engaged in some meditation and the growth went away. At the time–in my “I’m going to die” doom spiral–I had taken great offense, as if she were a) suggesting I brought the treatment on myself by eating something untoward,  and/or b) questioning my decision to seek surgical intervention.

But now, I wonder if perhaps she was just scared, on my behalf. And I wonder now, if after enduring a severe illness and unwittingly passing it on to her children, she will enjoy some kind of bright side. Not necessarily the kind where you end up with a new baby, but another kind that I have also enjoyed.

The kind where you are more discriminating in whom you trust, where you fear things in order of their priority, and where you are less sure of being right.

I hope she does.