Good Reading : May 2011
US Civil War in fiction THE VOGEL AWARDS What are they? BELLA VENDRAMINI on Naked in Public Books from a teenager's perspective NEXT ISSUE on sale 27 June ORDER YOUR COPY NOW! receive any of his scheduled vaccinations, including one for a bacterial disease called Haemophilus influenzae type b, or Hib. Oftentimes, a Hib infection is not particularly threatening - if the ger ms stay in the nose and throat, it's likely the child won't get sick at all - but if the infection travels into the lungs or the bloodstream, it can result in hearing loss or per manent brain damage. Hib can also cause severe swelling in the throat due to a condition called epiglottitis, which, if not treated immediately, results in infected tissue slowly sealing off the victim's windpipe until he suffocates to death. As recently as the 1970s, tens of thousands of children in America had severe Hib infections each year. Many of those suffered from bacterial meningitis, and between five hundred and one thousand died. After the Hib vaccine was put into widespread use, the disease all but disappeared in the United States: In 1980, approximately 1 in 1,000 children caught Hib; today, fewer than 1 in 100,000 do. In fact, the immunization had been so effective that out of everyone working in the Monroeville ER, the doctor who'd asked Kelly Lacek about her son's vaccine history was the only one who had been practicing long enough to have seen an actual Hib infection in a child. Until that night, Kelly had never given much thought to the potential repercussions of her decision not to have Matthew vaccinated. "I must have read somewhere that after he turned three, he would have been okay for many of those diseases," she says. "I thought he was in the clear." She was wrong. "I have never seen a doctor panic so quickly," she says. If, as the doctor was all but certain was the case, Matthew had been infected, then everything that had been done to him in the hospital that night - the examinations, the swabs, the breathing treatments - had served only to further inflame his throat. It wasn't until Kelly saw her son's X-rays that she realized just how dire the situation was: It looked as if Matthew had a thumb lodged in his throat. "I started to shake," Kelly says. "There was just a tiny bit of airway left for him to breathe." Within minutes, the entire emergency room was thrown into a frenzy. Kelly heard someone shout out, "Page Children's!"Then she heard a second command: "Get Life Flight here right away." Finally, a doctor pulled the Laceks aside and explained the situation to them. "If we don't get Matthew on a helicopter [to the Children's Hospital in Pittsburgh] right now, your son is probably going to die," he said. "It could be within minutes."While they were waiting, the doctor said, Kelly had to make sure Matthew remained calm. "I do not want you crying," the doctor said. "I do not want you reacting to anything. If you are upset, Matthew will be upset, and that will make his throat close up more. If that happens he will suffocate." As if in a daze, Kelly went and picked up her son. It wasn't until she heard her teeth chattering that she realized she was shaking. She focused all her energy on trying to remain still. While Kelly was holding Matthew, Dan Lacek was confer ring with the hospital staff. It had rained earlier in the evening, and now the entire area was covered in fog, which made it too dangerous to land a helicopter. Matthew was going to have to make the trip to Pittsburgh in an ambulance - but before he could be moved, he'd have to be intubated. If that didn't work - if there was not enough room in Matthew's throat for a breathing tube - the doctors would try to perfor m a tracheotomy, which involves cutting into the windpipe in an effort to for m an alter nate pathway for air to get into the lungs. (The procedure is not without risk: The physicist Stephen Hawking lost his speech when the nerves that control the vocal cords were damaged during an emergency tracheotomy.) Once again, it fell to Kelly to keep her son calm. Fortunately, the tube slid down Matthew's throat. Unless it closed up so much that the tube was forced out, they'd bought themselves a few more hours. It was almost four in the morning when the Laceks arrived in Pittsburgh. Matthew was immediately placed in a medically induced coma. All the doctors could promise was that he'd live through the night. "They said something about not catching it quickly enough with the antibiotics," Kelly says. "Even if he did recover, there was a good chance he would have per manent brain damage, or, best-case scenario, he would have hearing loss." For forty-eight hours, Dan and Kelly Lacek's son remained in stable condition. "You're in shock," Kelly says. "You never let your guard down.You're just so focused on him getting better." Then, on Tuesday, just as they were growing more hopeful, Matthew's blood pressure plummeted. The only thing the Laceks could think to do at that point was to ask their friends to pray for them. The Panic Virus: Fear, myth and the vaccination debate by Seth Mnookin is published by Black Inc, r rp $32.95.