We’ve received a lot of questions from our readers about the status of Tara Hills, the formerly anti-vax mother whose 7 children caught whooping cough, just a week before their updated vaccination schedule was supposed to begin. It’s been a couple of months since we’ve posted an update, so we interviewed Tara this week.

Read more about Tara’s story:
Learning the Hard Way: My Journey from #AntiVaxx to Science – April 8, 2015
Whooping Cough is so Rotten, That We Couldn’t Post the Video – April 9, 2015
With 7 Kids in Recovery from Whooping Cough, Tara Hills Answers Your Questions – April 15, 2015

Here’s what she told told us:

So first up, even though it’s more than two months later we still get emails and messages asking about how your kids are doing now. How is everyone doing post whooping cough?

I’m touched that 2 months later people around the world care enough to ask about our family. Really touched. Physically everyone is well. The 7 kids responded to the antibiotic treatment and turned a corner within days. That cough is awful though and has lingered in our youngest. It can linger up to 12 weeks so we’re hoping it goes away soon. Mercifully no one went into respiratory distress so we don’t expect long-term damage.

Emotionally the kids are fine and life is normal again. I’m another story. I still think of this everyday. Painful reminders, what ifs, gratitude, self-consciousness as strangers say they ‘know me’. Many, many lessons learned the hard way.

How about how the medical community in Ottawa responded to you during and after the crisis? Did you feel any judgement from your doctor, the hospital or public health agencies?

They were excellent. We were assigned a nurse from Ottawa Public Health from day 1 when the results came back positive. She was our go-to through and after the crisis. She worked with us (over the phone) step by step, was very calm, helpful, and professional. We were in great hands.

Something which shocked Julia and Leslie was that other parents seemed to be understanding and supportive of you online, but both the pro-science and anti-vaccine communities seemed to have harsh words for you but for different reasons. Have you lost any friends in either camp due to your post?

Our story hitting international news was shocking and surreal. I was willing to ‘speak into the microphone’ even though I felt sick in front of such a huge audience. But we stood by our core message and still do. I stayed away from news comment feeds because I was too involved and overwhelmed with everything. It was all so “out there” so the harsh words didn’t affect me. Closer to home, all our key relationships were fine. Some friendships were strained temporarily and only 1 was lost, mostly due to disagreements with how I handled what was a very difficult situation for our family.

It was hard to hear the harsh judgement from the pro-science community. We thought they’d embrace us with open arms. We had already learned our lesson and booked the catch-up appointments. We expected the anti-vaccine community to react harshly to us, but to have the pro-science community rub our faces in a pile of shame was disgustingly unhelpful in advancing their cause. Some asked “what if it had been polio?” I know! Don’t you think I KNOW? That’s exactly why we shared our story and withstood the firestorm from every angle.

WC TimelineWere there any misconceptions that bothered you?

Some people have said that whopping cough is no biggie so they “aren’t convinced” or alarmed enough to reconsider examining the vaccine issue much less get their kids or themselves vaccinated. For most of our kids it wasn’t a nightmare, but it was awful for the youngest ones. The two youngest would cough so hard they threw up, none of us slept that week.

Our story was illustrative of a vaccine-preventable illness sweeping through one family. That’s why I shared our story in that context. Some people online dismissed it and acted like the whole thing was one big stay-cation for our family. That truly shocked me. I couldn’t believe that after hearing the sounds of our children struggling to breath through coughing fits they would dismiss the risk to infants. It was beyond shocking.

Waiting to make sure our 5-month-old niece and 2 immune-compromised family members were going to be okay was indescribable. I had so much guilt and fear, there are no words to describe the waiting to hear if our infant niece was hospitalized or worse, all because of us.

For me one of the most shocking things was people alleging there were ‘holes’ in my story and that I was a paid actress. Even more bizarre is that some people alleged that I was covering up a more scandalous truth. Are you kidding me? I would have given anything for our family to not have gone through what we did!

When you changed your minds about vaccines do you think (honestly) there was anything anyone could have said to you to change your mind?

Maybe? How they approached me would have made a huge difference. Respectfully validating and addressing versus sarcastically dismissing my concerns and questions would have made a difference. Building our trust through caring, patient dialogue would have helped. Just talking to me at all like an intelligent caring person would have helped.

If someone had said in a genuinely kind tone. “Tara, you are a great mom who loves her kids dearly. I know there is so much confusion about vaccines. I care about you and want to help you make a informed decision you feel really confident in. Would you be willing to share some of your concerns with me so we could go through them one by one? In the end it’s your decision. I want to make sure you are totally confident in your decision since it’s so important.” I would like to think I would have stepped willingly into that kind of conversation. There was no threat or attack that would trigger defensiveness.

It’s hard to talk to loved ones about vaccines. Hopefully our sharing will help people have those talks in a constructive way, guide them to a starting point they can relate to, and maybe help save some lives.

You said in an earlier post that the Disneyland measles outbreak was part of what contributed to your rethinking of your anti-vaccination stance. When you finally began your new wave of research, can you clarify how that happened, and how did you look for and find your information?

It had been building for some time. Seeing the hatred and fear towards people who didn’t vaccinate (like us) was alarming. I knew if push came to shove, and we lost the freedom to choose, we would have to be rock solid certain of our stance. So in February, I came out of the anti-vax closet by posting on my personal Facebook wall that I was that mom. That I felt caught between a horrible rock and terrible place. That somehow no matter how much I searched for solid answers I’d never really know. That it would boil down to a coin toss with our kids’ health in the balance. So I set out to prove we were right NOT to vaccinate. I had my kids’ health at stake and my pride to defend. So I started reading anti-vaccine books, publications, and popular sites to bolster my position. But I knew a fair trial demanded I listen to both sides. A public health advocate (The Scientific Parent’s Leslie Waghorn) suggested I list my key concerns/questions, and offered to go through them with me one by one. She disarmed my defensive posture by validating that it was okay to ask questions and even better to seek solid answers. Turns out that all my concerns boiled down to only a few key questions, which I addressed in my first Q&A.

Were your older children aware of your decision to stop vaccinating, and if so how did you talk to them about your decision to resume vaccination?

Our oldest (10) and I had discussed it back in February or March when she saw me doing a lot of research and reading about vaccines. So she had the backstory when the pertussis hit our family. I talked to her using an analogy of imaginary kids playing at our park. It went like this: What if after playing Johnny, Suzy came along and whispered “don’t play with Johnny. His family is dirty and will make your family sick!” What should you do? Just believe her words or go check her story to see if it’s true? How could you know for sure? Then I bridged to the vaccine issue, shared our story from when she was little, how all the Suzys were talking and we got scared and confused. We froze when we should have dug deeper for solid answers. A painful life lesson I hope our children will not repeat.

Do you have any advice for parents who are skeptical about vaccines or have questions?

That I commend them for taking the time and effort to focus on this vital part of parenting! To make sure to consider their biases and check their sources carefully and to not cherry-pick the information they like best. They should also talk to their doctors before making any decisions about vaccines. Our doctor was very understanding when we said we wanted to catch the kids up on their vaccines. We didn’t consult him before we stopped vaccinating because we were afraid of being judged or worse. I now wish I’d talked to him because he was very understanding.

 

– Edited by Leslie Waghorn and Julia Bennett

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Categories: Infectious Disease + Vaccines