In early April, The Washington Post published a cover story on the women who made it possible for the United States to finally produce universal vaccines. The story was simple, at least in comparison to some of the gory crime narratives you’d expect from the front page of the paper.
A Des Moines woman who has a rare facial ailment was unable to access vaccines. A Brooklyn dermatologist spent days searching for a body part that could make a vaccine. A Utah woman received three missed calls a day from the company she worked for, which failed to get $49 million to cover women with a Zika shot. A lack of insurance meant she and many others like her lacked a simple vaccine that they could easily access. In most cases, they had to find their own affordable way to get vaccinated—the same way their families would have done if it were easy to get the vaccine.
I was one of those women with a medical condition that made getting a vaccine hard. I had a transverse myelitis, a neurologic disease that can make the body incapable of walking. Because of its seemingly debilitating nature, my illness typically impacted school, work and travel. My doctors found a safety valve—my friend Sarah, who lives near the Omaha airport, often helped ferry me around town after school and suggested I participate in group trips where we could immunize our friends. But for my colleagues in the pharmaceutical industry, turning serious medical problems into vaccines was completely out of their wheelhouse.
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Then I met Pregnant Gene. By the time I was pregnant, all of my doctors had told me to avoid vaccines because of my disease. Still, I always had a fear of contracting the flu or any other virus, so I took my own mom, Stacy Robinson, to the West Indian Day Parade with her health insurance in 2015. There, I met a man who was director of operations for Pan American Health in New York. He introduced me to an assistant who had a mother with a flesh-eating disease who was unable to get vaccinated. I later discovered that diabetes-causing Tetanus was her diagnosis, and that she was one of several cases at the health center.
Soon, I connected with another woman, Elisa Pinto, who has a condition called anaphylaxis, and who wanted to travel to India for treatment of an autoimmune disease caused by hepatitis B. As doctors warned, she had the potential to have trouble getting the hepatitis B vaccine in India. She eventually found a way to get the vaccine through the doctors. It was only after that, though, that she realized that she would never be able to get the full course of treatment because she didn’t have the full insurance.
Even now, even with two of my illnesses being handled well with the help of vaccinations, I still face many challenges getting vaccines. I get a letter every week informing me that I need to receive the flu shot (which I don’t remember receiving in high school). I often will need to shell out $60 before anyone will approve any healthcare. Those vaccines are important and necessary. If not for them, I’d be in a lot of trouble.