By Angelina Albert, MPH
In The Immunization Partnership office in Houston, there is a wall covered with large canvas print photographs. Each photo has a story connected to it of someone impacted by a vaccine-preventable disease. These stories remind us why we do what we do. I look at those photographs every day and reflect on what those families had gone through – what could have been prevented.
This past summer, our family experienced a vaccine-preventable disease story of our own.
It all started in July. Like many afternoons, I called my dad on my way home from work. He sounded weak and hoarse when he picked up the phone. I asked him how he was doing, and he told me how terrible he felt. He had woken up in the middle of the night gasping for air; he had never felt so bad. He wondered if he was possibly allergic to my mom’s recently adopted cat. I just assumed he had been working too hard and needed to rest. Even so, I was still very concerned. When I was young he had an emergency quadruple bypass. Now – 22 years later – he is very healthy. He goes for long walks each morning and maintains a low-fat diet. But like any doting daughter, I still consistently worry about him.
I thought about him that evening and texted my mom to see how he was doing. She was coming to Houston that weekend and would bring the cat with her to see if his symptoms improved. We chatted about other things, and I assumed he would get better. She called me the next day from the emergency room. My dad couldn’t breathe.
When they took him into the ER, he was immediately diagnosed with pneumonia. They admitted him into the hospital, where he was put on oxygen and antibiotics and stayed for several days. His case was quite severe. The nurse asked him if he had received the pneumococcal vaccine, and he was pretty certain he hadn’t. Knowing where I worked, he called me to ask about it. After learning more about the vaccine from my colleagues, I told him that adults older than 65, especially those with chronic diseases (such as heart disease), should get the vaccine. He wasn’t even aware it existed, let alone that he needed it. He was annoyed that his doctor had not recommended it.
His hospital stay was extended when he developed an unusual swollen pain on his shoulder. My dad has his own business, and his anxiety level increased as he sat in the hospital room unable to work. Now, months later, my dad is back at work, but still lacks energy.
Though my dad had made sure to receive the flu shot each fall, he had never received – or even been aware of – the pneumococcal vaccine for adults. He is older than 65, but is not frail or sickly, and to him developing pneumonia seemed to come out of nowhere. Seemingly healthy or not, it is strongly encouraged that adults his age (65+) receive the vaccine. I made him promise he would protect himself, and as soon as he was well enough, he went to the doctor to get the vaccine.
In 2010, 1.1 million people were admitted into the hospital for pneumonia in the United States, with a length of stay averaging 5.2 days. Among those with pneumonia in 2010, 49,597 people died from it.
My dad is one of the lucky ones; he pulled through. But my family will never forget that experience.
Angelina is a Development Specialist with The Immunization Partnership.