Meredith’s mother was suspicious about vaccines and would never let her have them as a child. For a while it didn’t seem to matter, but eventually Meredith (not her real name) starting coming down with some frightening illnesses.
It started when I accidentally stood on a nail. Some time afterwards my jaw and shoulder started to seize up and paramedics rushed me to the closest hospital in an ambulance.
It was a teaching hospital in Brisbane and I remember vividly that the doctor left the room saying quietly, “Oh my God!”
He brought in all the medical students to take a look at me. It was tetanus – also known as lockjaw. They hadn’t had a patient diagnosed with tetanus in over 30 years.
I was determined and said: “I’m not going to die at 36 because of tetanus.”
Despite the pain, I felt angry towards my mother, because she deliberately didn’t get me vaccinated. The doctors took white blood cells from someone who had already had tetanus – cells that had proved that they were “seasoned fighters” – and injected them into me to help my white blood cells recognise the illness and fight it.
With this treatment, eventually I got better. But I was still angry, because this is something that could’ve been completely prevented.
My mum, grandma and aunties are all quite “mystical” and definitely hippies. They tend to believe that the body naturally heals itself. If I had a cold, growing up in New Zealand, I was told, “Eat a cucumber,” or, “Have a drink of what the neighbour made.”
My grandma subscribes to a magazine that gives you tips on how to live better. From this magazine, she ordered a glow stick that cost $200. I know that it’s a glow stick because when you snap it, it glows. But she thinks it’s a wand that you touch food with, to “give it life”.
I never believed in this mystical stuff the way my family do, except when I was very young.
When I was about three, I kept having seizures. The doctors diagnosed me with hypoglycaemia – my body was producing too much insulin. A doctor at the time said that I might grow out of it and gave my mum a box of medication for me to take.
When I was a little older my mum told me that if I’d taken that medicine, I would have grown hair out of every pore and she would have had to shave my forehead every day before I went to school.
My favourite movie at the time was Teen Wolf and she essentially described the main character.
“You would’ve had hair on the back of your hands and your neck,” she said. She claims the pharmacy had accidentally left the information about the medical trials on the box. This supposedly said it had been tested on dogs, that five out of seven dogs had died, and they were just starting the human trials.
As a child I was completely traumatised by her description. I think she was indoctrinating me into being afraid of taking medication.
When I was 11, the school gave us MMR vaccinations. When any injections happened, the school typically sent out paperwork and parents would fill in the permission slips. Mum would always send back, “No, choosing not to.”
But this one vaccination slipped under the radar.
I remember mucking around with my friends as we waited in line outside the library. When I went into the room with my sleeves rolled up I saw the needle. I said nervously to the nurse, “I don’t know if I’m allowed that.” She assured me it was fine and just like that, I was vaccinated against measles.
When I came home, Mum saw that I had a cotton bud and a plaster where I had been injected. I told her that everyone at school had an injection. She hit the roof and yelled, “Why didn’t you stop and call me?”
I think I stuttered something about how teachers have authority at school, and that I listened to them. Mum immediately got in the car and screeched out of the driveway.
She was so upset when she came home, she declared: “You’re never going back to that school.”
That was my last day of primary school. Mum pulled me out – I left all my friends behind, and wasn’t allowed to say goodbye.
My classmates didn’t know why I suddenly disappeared but I think that my teachers did, as Mum had given them all an earful.
Three weeks later we moved out to the country. I helped Mum pack up our belongings, feeling very guilty. Getting vaccinated had caused all this trouble and led to us being uprooted.
No-one had ever sat me down to explain to me what vaccinations really are. It was just assumed at school that we were supposed to get them. What I heard from Mum was that they come from the cells of chicken embryos and frogs and they inject those cells into us. This was way before the internet, and we only got our information from Gran’s magazines.
When I moved from New Zealand over to Brisbane in 2009 with my partner, my grandma was in tears. I assured her it was fine but she kept pleading with me not to go. “There are yetis on Mount Tamborine,” she cried.
Bless her, but I did think exasperatedly: “How am I related to you people?”
My partner is very logical and rational. He cannot fathom how I grew up like this. He grew up in Brunei and Nairobi so he’s been vaccinated for everything and frequently gets boosters too. He only found out two years into our relationship that I wasn’t vaccinated for most preventable diseases.
We were planning a trip overseas when the topic came up. When I told him the truth, there was a long, drawn-out silence until he finally went: “Seriously? How are you even alive?”
We had a very serious discussion. He told me that he cares about me and my health is very important to him. But I didn’t immediately start getting vaccinations.
In 2016, I contracted whooping cough. I had it for six weeks before I was properly diagnosed. It took four different doctors. At first they said that it was the flu or pneumonia, and told me to keep drinking fluids and rest, etc. I was then prescribed antibiotics when it looked like it was more serious.
Only the last doctor noticed the sound of my cough and realised it was whooping cough.
I was ill for a hellish 12 weeks. By the fourth week, I had forgotten what it was like to not be coughing, and accepted that this was just my life now.
Mum knew I had whooping cough but didn’t really say much. She was very concerned and said things like, “Poor thing, get fresh air and a lie down.” She offered to fly over to Brisbane to help take care of me, but I told her, “No.” My partner was really angry about it. He said: “I can’t believe she’s put you through this.”
My mum seemed to comprehend the seriousness of whooping cough, but she didn’t seem to grasp that there was a connection between vaccinations and me getting preventable diseases. In fact, she would have caught it herself if she came over, as she’s not vaccinated either.
I still haven’t told her that I got tetanus last year. The memory makes me upset to the point that I don’t want to talk to her.
I’ve only recently started getting vaccinated for the stuff I should’ve got as a child, but getting vaccinations as an adult is more expensive in Australia. I paid $200 (£110) to be vaccinated against Hepatitis B.
I am working my way through a list, which includes Diphtheria, inactivated Polio, Meningococcal ACWY, and Human Papillomavirus (HPV).
My younger sister has had all her vaccinations done. She moved to Japan for a few years and needed to have all the correct injections in order to live there. One day we were on a three-way video call and my sister started talking about the tasks she had left to do before the move, and let slip about the vaccinations.
Mum shouted “WHAT?!” and my sister is a really bad liar. She tried to backtrack and invented a scanning machine on the spot that apparently makes you healthy for Japan. Our mum isn’t exactly technologically advanced and said, “Oh, all right.”
Nowadays, I feel like Mum has eased up on her mistrust of medicine. She became ill 15 years ago with sepsis and was OK with taking medicine then. My stepfather has cystic fibrosis and takes a handful of pills every morning.
But she gets very sensitive when her knowledge of mystical things is questioned.
I wish I could solve this issue for her. She must be seeing preventable disease outbreaks in the news all the time. It would be amazing to get through to her, but every time we have hinted around the issue, she clams up, gets upset, and cries. And you don’t want to put your own mum through that.
Illustrations by Emma Russell
As told to Elaine Chong