inessential by Brent Simmons


An interesting link on Daring Fireball today has me thinking about vaccines.

I’m still living with the effects of the chicken pox I had in third grade.

There was no vaccine then. Every kid just got it. It swept through school, and nobody tried too hard to prevent the spread, because every kid would get it, and it was better to get it when you were young.

It was just a thing. We thought we were modern because it was just chicken pox — not polio or smallpox or one of those scarier diseases that had been conquered.

But now there is a vaccine, and I wish like crazy there had been a vaccine when I was a kid.

I was nearly hospitalized — my Mom tells me I was within an hour or so of having to go the hospital when I could finally sip a few drops of water without vomiting.

I remember vomiting so much that the vomiting itself didn’t even bother me any more. I started crying out of frustration. Just when I started to feel a little better, a little cooler, and hungry and thirsty, I’d try the smallest sip of water, and whatever was left in me to come up would come back up. It just went on and on.

For days? I don’t know. It seemed like weeks of nights. Trying to sleep. Itchy, exhausted, unable. The screaming heat inside that wouldn’t end. Then the stomach convulsions.

I was told I had chicken pox not just on my skin but inside me, too. Could that be true? Was that possible? I still don’t know — but I didn’t question it, because it sure felt like it.

Of course I had chicken pox on my head. So I had pink hair — pink with the Calamine Lotion my Mom applied. The pink was mortifying to a third-grade boy.

A friend of my Mom’s, a woman from down the street, came by one day. (She was cool: she drove a white Corvette. Here’s one.) I can still feel the embarassment of my pink hair. The spots all over my face I could deal with: the pink hair was devastating.

I was finally able to drink water, and then I moved up to jello and then on to chicken noodle soup. I was able to sit at the dinner table and watch the network news. (ABC news broadcast from WPVI in Philadelphia.)

I got better. After about three weeks of the chicken pox, I could return to school, even though still slightly scarred. Prepared to be teased.

I was the smartest kid in the grade. I won every spelling bee. I got 100% test scores. I always had.

And though I was prepared to be teased for the visible remains of my chicken pox, I was not prepared to get in trouble with my teacher for cheating.

Cheating? Me? People cheated off me, not the other way around.

But I was looking at someone else’s paper. Because I couldn’t see the chalkboard anymore and I couldn’t read the questions to copy them down.

I kept getting in trouble, and I kept getting teased, and I was angry and hot-headed a whole bunch of the time. I started getting in trouble for accidents, and for things other kids had done. (Which wasn’t that new, actually: I was in trouble at school, or about to be and dreading it, most of the time as a kid.)

It was a few weeks before news got to my parents and they took me for an eye exam.

Chicken pox had ruined my eyesight.

So I got glasses, and that worked. But my vision, once gotten a head-start down that path, kept getting worse for a few years.

Though it pretty much stabilized while I was in high school, it got bad enough that it’s dangerous for me to walk around my own house with my contact lenses out.

I can tell you that my staircase has 16 steps. (Easy number for a programmer to remember!)

To read with my contacts out, I have to hold the book so close that I have to close one eye.

I can look down at my feet and not see the cat.

My parents were both near-sighted — they both got glasses in the eighth grade. Their eyesight is better than mine. Odds are I would have gotten glasses around the eighth grade too, and had eyesight about like theirs. Not great, but not terrible.

I wish, to this day, that there had been a chicken pox vaccine.

I later got shingles when I was 20. I won’t be surprised to get it again, but I sure hope not. Shingles hurts.

So I was out about three weeks from school. I hated school anyway.

But we were doing a special unit on the history of native Americans, which I thought would be pretty cool.

I missed some arts and crafts things — creating a diorama, carving a miniature dugout canoe out of Ivory soap. I was just as glad to miss that stuff, as I liked reading and writing better.

I also missed out learning about the history of native Americans, though I did pick up some later.

Which brings me back to the subject of vaccines. And, you know, I thought I was going to, but I don’t really need to state the obvious.