CATES: One change at a time: Immunizations

By Carol A. Cates, MSN, MBA, RN

Chief Nursing Officer

Odessa Regional Medical Center

When I was a young nurse, I met a person who used a “clam shell respirator” to help them breathe. When I met this person, they had been using this device for over 20 years. They wore it every day 24 hours a day except for a few minutes each day to clean the skin under the device.

A clam shell respirator looks almost exactly like the name says, like a clam shell. It was a hard case that fit around the chest and had seals at neck, waist, and arms to hold out air. The way it worked; it would pull a vacuum in the shell every few seconds to help this person expand their chest so they could inhale. Then it would release the vacuum, collapsing their chest to help them exhale. Without the device, this person became very quickly short of breath to the point they turned blue. To this day, whenever I think of immunizations, I think of this person and their daily struggle to breathe.

I think of them because the reason this person had that clam shell respirator was because as a child, they had polio. That disease so damaged the bones and muscles in that person’s chest that they could not expand it without help. That respirator was very cutting-edge technology in the days where polio killed many, many people, and caused irreversible musculoskeletal damage to many, many more. But it never fixed the issue, because then and even now, there is no cure for polio. The only way to avoid the ravages that polio causes is prevention, which means immunization.

When Jonas Salk in 1955 invented the polio vaccine, he was a national and international hero. People across the planet stood in lines for hours to get that revolutionary vaccination. It was so effective, that in 30 years of nursing, I have yet to see an active case of polio.

I am saying “have yet to” because nationally, immunization rates are decreasing. We are starting to see outbreaks of diseases that for much of my nursing career were thought to be completely eradicated in this country, diseases like measles, rubella, and even polio. The diseases we currently immunize for can cause horrible damage if people survive them from scaring and deformities, to chronic health problems from things like scarred lungs or musculoskeletal issues, and infertility. Then there is the “if people survive them” part. World history is rife with stories of the diseases we currently immunize for wiping out entire communities. In some of the third world countries, these diseases still kill and damage people in the thousands each year.

I will be the first person to say you have the absolute right to decide what is best for you and your health. But, as I say that, I also hope that you are basing your decisions about health care on informed and well researched sources, not social media, and not someone with something to gain. There are many, but my go to sources without financial bias that are well researched are the Centers for Disease Control, the National Institutes of Health, and if you want a good source that is not tied to the U.S. government, look at the Joanna Briggs Institute’s website. All these sources demand solid research techniques and do not profit from the studies they present.

There are also people, for a variety of reasons like allergies, or severe immune system problems, who cannot take immunizations. They depend on the rest of us being immune to keep them safe. So, as you consider immunizations, remember it’s not just you, it could be that infant in your home, or that elderly neighbor that your immunity helps protect too.

Immunizations for many of us have been around so long we have never seen the ravages of the diseases they prevent. And quite frankly, I hope I never see anything even close to the history books. COVID was the worst thing I have ever seen in my career, and I cannot imagine anything worse. I hope getting immunized is not a change, but a habit. But, if you are debating whether to get immunized, please speak to your primary health care provider about the immunizations that are recommended for you and your loved ones. Ask them questions about the pros and cons of immunization, so you can make the best decision for your health.