Parents to parents: Vaccinating is personal

Story highlights

  • Parents share their personal messages to those who don't vaccinate
  • Mother of heart transplant recipient asks anti-vaxxers to think about her son
  • A parent struggles with having one child who is vaccinated and another who isn't

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(CNN)Lisa Vallejos was 21 weeks pregnant when an ultrasound of her first child revealed terrifying news. He had hypoplastic left heart syndrome, meaning the left side of his heart was grossly underdeveloped and his chances of surviving after birth without medical intervention were slim.

Doctors told Vallejos she had four options: abortion; taking the pregnancy to term and letting nature take its course; putting her baby through three separate reconstructive heart surgeries after birth; or getting him on the transplant waiting list.
The soon-to-be mother was overcome by fear. But she took her chances and put him on the transplant list.
    Her son, Gabriel, is now 8. He gets to live a pretty normal life and goes to school full time in Alameda, California, thanks to the immunosuppressant drugs he's taking for his heart. He takes two pills every day so that his body will not reject the donor heart that keeps him alive. Because his immune system can't fight off the weakened live virus in the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine, it is the only vaccination he can't have.
    Now, with about 100 cases of measles having sprouted up across the U.S. this year, more than half of them in California, Vallejos is gravely concerned about her son's safety.
    Vallejos, a 36-year-old professional counselor, says she understands the hesitation some parents have about vaccinating their kids.
    "I understand fearing for your child... I handed my son over to a cardiac surgeon when he was 13 days old, knowing that I might never see him again." she says.
    All she wants for her son is to keep him safe, but if there's a live case of measles at Gabriel's school, his cardiac team told Vallejos that she will have to pull him out. Vallejos doesn't want to see Gabriel quarantined and forced to do schooling at home.
    She urges those who don't vaccinate their kids to consider what their choice really means.
    "Just like you don't want people forcing you to make choices about your child's healthcare, I don't want your choices to either force my family into undesirable positions at best and at worst, to harm or even kill my son," she says.
    "One parent to another...let's keep all our loved ones safe. One death by preventable disease is one too many."
    You have to try
    If you stop Emily West in the grocery store and asked her where she stands in the vaccination debate, the Beaverton, Oregon, resident will fervently tell you she's pro-vaccination. Her 9-year-old daughter is up to date with all her shots, but her 7-year-old son hasn't been immunized.
    That's not for lack of trying. The teacher has struggled deeply with not vaccinating her son Brayden, who has had allergic reactions to every vaccination shot he's received since he was young. Typically after Brayden gets a vaccine, he spikes a fever of 105 degrees and is rushed to the hospital, West explained. After that, he'll spend days in bed unable to lift his limbs.
    West says she feels guilty having one child who isn't vaccinated. She found herself arguing with close friends because Brayden isn't immunized against measles.
    But West has tried multiple times to vaccinate Brayden because she feels it's her civic duty.
    "I would love to vaccinate him," she says. Her son also struggles with a host of other food and environmental allergies that the family tries to manage. "It really bugs me when families have totally healthy kids and they don't vaccinate." With the cases of measles rising, West hopes that families who have resisted vaccinating will at least try like she has with Brayden.
    "It is an ethical thing for me to try," she says. "These kids who are compromised are like canaries in a coal mine. They get sick easily and they get sick harder."
    We don't want outbreaks to happen again
    Parents today don't know how bad it can get, says Janie Lambert. The 63-year-old remembers having measles back in 1959, when she was 7 years old and attending the first grade in Knoxville, Tennessee.
    She was confined to her bedroom for days with the curtains drawn. All her parents could offer to treat the symptoms were baby aspirin, soup and cold compresses. For two weeks she endured a high fever and excruciating body aches, and she was covered in a thick, itchy rash.
    "I was young, but I remember it all very well and would not wish this on anyone, child or adult," says Lambert, who now lives in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. "It took about six months or more for me to become myself again, but I remained a much weaker kid for a long time."
    With news of measles now present in 14 states, Lambert says she is surprised more people her age are not speaking up about the dangers. "They know better and know what can happen."
    She hopes younger parents will think about the dangers of future outbreaks and reconsider their stance on vaccinating.
    The way parents view vaccines seems to have changed since the 1950s and '60s, Lambert says.
    She remembers parents had no choice about immunizing their kids. Students were simply lined up at the gym or lunchroom and inoculated. "I don't remember anyone who refused for their kids to be immunized at that time," she says.
    Lambert has five adult children. They were all immunized when they were younger, and all six of her grandchildren are vaccinated as well, including her grandson Isaac who is 12 years old and was diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome at age 5. Her family does not believe Isaac's condition has anything to do with vaccinations.
      "Most folks my age and older remember the horrors of measles, polio and smallpox. We surely don't want that to happen again."