Monday, October 22, 2012

Moms Who Vax: "But I Saw it with My Own Eyes!"

By Karen Ernst

A mother's connection to her children is powerful. She is the first to tell when the baby needs to be fed, the first to know that her child is overtired, and the first to know that something is not going well at school. Logic must dictate, then, that she would be the one who would know all about a child's disorders and conditions, be they autism, epilepsy, ADHD, or what have you. She should know when things went awry, why, and how, surely.

Not so fast. 

While a mother might sense when something is wrong, we do need an objective eye to help us discern exact diagnoses and to help us construct the history of our children's conditions. A mother of a sleepless baby may bring her bundle in and announce confidently that it must be an ear infection, only to learn that her children's ears look healthy and normal. Likewise, when we visit our pediatrician's walk-in strep clinic, I'm always struck by the number of “negative” prognoses that are handed out. How can we all be so wrong so often? In these moments, I usually tell my pediatrician, “You can tell which of the two of us actually went to med school.”

I've known "mom's instinct" can lead us astray for some time now, but this idea was revealed clearly to me after a trip to the zoo that ended with itty bitty bits of strawberries and Pizza Rolls.

We were at the “little zoo,” where treats are sold every few feet to ensure my children leave hyper and sticky. This time, I buckled and bought both boys strawberry popsicles—the kind made from actual strawberries. I patted myself on the back for providing an actual fruit treat. I was a good mom. About two and a half hours after we got home, the boys were hungry for lunch. Because I had made such an excellent treat choice, I okayed their choice for a Pizza Roll lunch. 

Fifteen minutes later, I was punished for my choice when the older one broke out in hives up and down his arms and across his forehead. Unfortunately, our history with hives is bad. This same boy had broken out in hives that turned severe as a result of an allergic reaction to an antibiotic. (As a side note, despite his adverse reaction to an antibiotic, I am not part of the anti-antibiotic movement.) 

I admit that I panicked, but I didn't panic hard. I called and got an immediate appointment at our clinic with a pediatrician I had never met. Not knowing our history, she misunderstand my angst about the hives and gave us a referral to the clinic's allergist. (It turns out that this visit was entirely unnecessary.) In a week's time I would see the allergist, but in the meantime, we had Benadryl on our side.

A week later, we went into the allergist. I am forever grateful that we saw this particular doctor. He was kind and listened to my worries. I told him I was sure my child had developed an allergic reaction to strawberries, but he insisted that the timing made it impossible. An allergic reaction would have occurred at least an hour earlier. I believe I actually said, “But I saw it with my own eyes!” He kindly explained to me that what we see and what we believe need to be supported by science. Fortunately, being a fan of science, I cast aside what I “saw with my own eyes!” and chose to believe him.

But the Pizza Rolls! He ate those fifteen minutes before the hives appeared! Do you know how much stuff is in Pizza Rolls? It's a veritable Who's Who of manufactured food bits! How would we ever parse which ingredient gave him the reaction!

The good allergist assured me that it was extremely unlikely that the boy was allergic to anything in Pizza Rolls. And then he said, “But if you want reassurance, do a little test for yourself. Cook some more and cut them up into tiny pieces. Give your child one piece at a time, and monitor him. If he get hives again, call us.”

I liked this plan! However, I was still unsure about the strawberries. Remember, I saw it with my own eyes. I had constructed my own narrative about what had happened, and it was hard to shake. So I also bought strawberries and cut them into tiny pieces, too. We would do the strawberries one day and the Pizza Rolls the next.

The results? Nothing happened. No hives, no anaphylaxis, nothing. The allergist, and science, were right.

I feel for parents who believe they know what happened to their children, only to have that belief contradicted by science. After all, doing a quick food test purely for my own reassurances was easy. A parent cannot give a child another MMR to see if it makes that child more autistic or another DTaP to see if that child becomes more epileptic.

Nonetheless, when study after study after study after study contradict a parent's instinct or experience, we have to side with the science. Parents are simply not the source of all knowledge when it comes to a child's medical issues. Bring your children to doctors and trust the science that supports what they do. And do not be swayed by another parent's eyewitness account. Sometimes what we see should not be believed.

Karen Ernst is a mother and teacher, and the co-founder of Moms Who Vax.

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