When I was nine months old, our family – my dad, mom, and six year old brother, David – moved from Pittsburgh to Hicksville, Long Island, so my dad could take a new job as an engineer at Sperry Rand in Lake Success, NY. As our family grew – brothers Steve and Jim and sister Cathy were born on Long Island – our summers had a ritual. We would pack up the station wagon, a 1962 black Mercury Monterey, by putting down all the seats in the back, covering the bed of back of the car with carpet remnants, putting in sleeping bags, coloring books, coolers, cups, plates, utensils, board games, toys, crayons, playing cards, pens, pencils, knives, and if there had been room, the kitchen sink. The five of us kids would then pile into the back at 4:00 AM while mom sat in the passenger seat and dad drove. We had one stop on the eight-hour drive: Harrisburg, PA, right before the Turnpike. We got gas, we peed, we got back in the car. And we then went straight through to our Aunt Cleo and Uncle Bud’s house in Carnegie, PA, a 407-mile drive done in 7-1/2 hours flat, all the time sitting, sleeping, fighting, and otherwise rolling around unrestrained in the back of a speeding station wagon, surrounded by an amazing array of sharp, breakable, and otherwise dangerous objects.
No one, I hope, would dream of taking a trip like that these days. We know better. We know that accidents happen, and when they do they can be devastating. Yet amazingly, we all survived. We never did crash. No one ever had their eye put out. We got to Cleo and Bud’s just fine and were met there by Isaly’s chipped ham (a Pittsburgh delicacy) sandwiches and Fritos (a gourmet food since we only had potato chips and pretzels in our house).
So why bring this up in a discussion of flu vaccine? Well, because of this: “I’ve never gotten a flu vaccine and I’ve never got the flu.” We’ve all heard this, right? We may have even said it. Like there’s a connection. Like there’s causality. Like, because I’ve never had the flu, I’m never, ever gonna get it. Like, since my dad never crashed the car or we were never hit by a truck while doing 70 on the winding Appalachian hills of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, it was never gonna happen. Right?
This is not causality. This is Magical Thinking. This is the blinkered view of reality that we sometimes use to get through the day. Why? Because, statistically speaking, most of the time, we’ll be right. Most people will NOT get a bad case of flu. Most kids will NOT die in a horrible car crash. And it’s hard to keep those small but real possibilities in our heads because it’s all just too much to deal with sometimes. But it’s not real. The “never” of the past does not create a “never” in the future. It’s just statistical probability, aka, plain dumb luck.
The fact that the flat bed in the back of a station wagon created by putting down the seats and filled with all sorts of distractions, many of them sharp and/or breakable, was considered an acceptable way to get your kids to their vacation was a product of the times and the lack of experience most people had with how horrific the consequences of this sort of arrangement was. While I look back at those trips fondly – they really were fun – these days the hair on the back of my neck stands up just a bit at the astounding risk my parents unknowingly took with our lives.
So, these days, to say that you are not going to get a flu vaccine because you “don’t believe in it” or because you’ve “never gotten the flu” is scientifically not reasonable and socially not acceptable. We know better, just as we know how vital it that that we and our kids have age-appropriate safety restraints in a moving car, even if we’ve never had an accident and will most likely never have one. We just know it’s the right thing to do.
I’ll freely admit that you will most likely not get the flu. That’s a statistical reality. It’s also likely that you and your kids will never be in a car accident, and that if you let them just sit in the car without a seatbelt, they would most likely be just fine. Yet I know that you will not drive without wearing a seat belt or let your kids travel in your car without proper restraints.
So when it comes to the flu, yeah, you most likely will not get it, not because you never have, not because you don’t believe in the vaccine, just because most people don’t. The thing is, if you lose, if you get the flu, you will be miserable. For at least a week. You will not be able to work. You will not be able to do anything. You will want to die. Even worse, if you bring the flu home to a more vulnerable household member – a baby, an older adult, a family member whose immune system is compromised – and that person gets even sicker with the flu than you and ends up in the hospital, or worse, how will you ever forgive yourself?
So while I really loved those trips to western Pennsylvania when I was a kid, lying in the back of the black Mercury station wagon with the “wood” on the side, writing in my notebook with an extra sharp No. 2 pencil, I also recognize that I am extremely lucky to have survived those trips to be here to tell you about them – and to urge you to get yourself and your loved ones a flu vaccine.