Seven years after my father passed, I recently experienced an unexpected emotion: Hope.
His death at the youthful age of 52 came as a shock. He was my best friend, cheerleader and confidante, and despite being a marathon runner and all-around healthy person, he was diagnosed with brain cancer. His prognosis of six months jarred our family, sending us into a tailspin of clinical research trials and medical jargon that our family struggled to understand.
Being an undergraduate student of public health at the time, I frantically hurled myself into self-study. Maybe if I could understand the intricacies of a National Institutes of Health study, I could figure out how to help my dad. But these epiphanies never came, and after just two months of illness my dad succumbed to the cancer, ultimately becoming just another statistic high-lighted in my textbooks.
In the years since, I have dabbled in different careers focused on helping others, ultimately returning to the field of public health. I believe these altruistic efforts to be an attempt at emulating my father’s goodwill.
An advocate in every sense of the word, my dad was a legal representative for Vietnam veterans whose children had been born with Spina Bifida, a result of the Agent Orange chemical inhaled during their service. Although he had not spent any time in military service himself, he had given every fiber of his being to ensure these veterans were treated with dignity and respect, as well as fairly compensated. Ironically, his demise was due to a glioblastoma, an illness commonly linked to military service exposure to Agent Orange. As the years have gone by since his death, this paradox has remained a particularly harsh reality.
The other day, though, I felt a deep hope for others whose loved ones are suffering the same diagnosis as my dad. One story in particular caught my eye: A daughter whose time with her father since the onset of his illness has been nearly twice as long as doctors expected. This is due, in large part, to the advent of a new and experimental peptide mimic immunotherapeautic vaccine, also known as the “cancer vaccine.”
If we believe the adage, “the personal is the political,” then the following is also true: The personal is public. Public health impacts each one of us, and vice versa, the decisions we make as individuals impact others. I am happy to have stuck with public health, and to now be able to advocate for vaccination. While I know it is ultimately a personal choice to vaccinate oneself or one’s children, I hope that for the sake of the public good, you will embrace the values that my dad carried with him to the end and consider the impact your decision has on the health of others.
The decision to vaccinate is a decision rooted in caring about others. Herd immunity is what keeps our most vulnerable people, those undergoing chemotherapy like my dad, safe and able to live as normal a life as possible.
August is National Immunization Awareness Month, and I am choosing to use it to highlight the existence of innovative new vaccines, such as those targeting glioblastomas, as well as vaccines being developed to prevent breast cancer and reduce the risk of melanoma spread. I dream of a future in which children won’t lose parents suddenly to these cruel illnesses and I know that my work is currently contributing to a world in which parents don’t lose children to vaccine-preventable diseases like measles, pertussis, and even HPV- related cancers.
Funny enough, one of my most vibrant memories from my pre-teen years was how adamant my dad was about taking my sister and me to get the HPV vaccine. This act on his behalf was an act of caring. Likewise, I hope we choose to care about one another, because whether you want to believe in them or not, vaccines are the single most life-saving advancement of medical science.
More than anything perhaps, they are a source of abiding hope for our future.
Bel Kelly-Russo is the program associate at ImmunizeVA. She can be reached at [email protected].
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