For Katelyn


18 years ago, my family faced a tragedy that has, to this day, had an influence over my family’s health and medical needs.

My sister, Katelyn, who would have been two years older than me, died when she was 17 months old after receiving the DTaP vaccination, which is meant to immunize children below the age of seven from diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis.

It is earth-shattering when something that is meant to keep you healthy ends up causing so much pain, but tragedies that are not meant to happen inevitably will. People have asked my family how it is that this could have happened — how it could have been avoided — but the only thing that can answer these questions is that nothing really could have been done. It was an accident, and accidents happen.

What my family has learned from this experience is as follows: When something as protective as a vaccine is the subject of such deep skepticism to you, it is important to look upon the subject by evaluating the consequences and benefits of certain immunizations in order to choose the best plan for your health.

My parents understood that abstaining me and my little sister, Natalie, from immunizations entirely would be unwise because of the risk of contracting a disease as babies and young children. Nevertheless, certain immunizations were indisputably necessary for us, including the polio, diphtheria and tetanus vaccines because of the severity of the illnesses.

Some vaccines were abstained from because of the risk of any adverse side effects. Among these was the DTaP vaccine. Evidently, this vaccine introduced a very sensitive topic to my family, so when it was time for me and Natalie to receive this vaccine, my parents proceeded with caution.

The DTaP vaccination was subjected to experimentation during the 90s whereby the pertussis immunization component was changed. The change was prompted to reduce adverse reactions caused by the initial vaccination formula in hopes that the new vaccine would be safer and more effective. The uncertainty of the pertussis immunization dissuaded my parents from treating me and my sister with the DTaP vaccine as a whole. This decision was difficult to make, however, because pertussis, or whooping cough, is fatal for infants. Despite this, my sister and I were never at high risk of contracting pertussis, and we did not receive any pertussis immunization as infants.

It is important to understand that certain decisions have repercussions, even if the decision is not entirely wrong. Once Natalie and I were both old enough to contract pertussis without it being fatal, we had never been immunized against it, and we had been in elementary school for a few years. This meant that we were especially susceptible to contracting pertussis if there were an outbreak. Consequently, when a strain of pertussis spread through our elementary school, we both caught it. Although the illness was unpleasant, it wasn’t until several years later that we ultimately received the pertussis vaccination for future immunization.

Soon after Katelyn passed away, my parents searched for closure through research, hoping to better the health procedures that Natalie and I would one day receive.

The Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS) works in conjunction with the Center for Disease Control and the Food and Drug Administration to collect information from and for the public about side effects from vaccinations that are on the market in the United States. Parents, guardians and doctors voluntarily report adverse reactions to vaccinations so that people are aware of risks, but because events are voluntarily reported, not every event will be accounted for if a parent, guardian or doctor chooses not to report it.

My mother chose to report my sister’s death to VAERS, where she also found that other people had experienced adverse reactions caused by the same lot, or batch, of the DTaP immunization. According to VAERS, four people, whose average ages were about a year and four months old, were admitted to the emergency room after having received vaccinations from the same batch number that my sister received. This was not uncommon among other batches of the vaccinations administered from 1998 through 1999 which caused multiple hospitalization and ER visits and over eight reported deaths.

However, databases like VAERS are not meant to steer people away from vaccination usage, but rather to aid adults and doctors when choosing how to treat children with vaccinations so that they can make informed and safe decisions.

Dr. Rick Lloyd, my pediatrician, helped my family conduct research and personalize an alternative vaccination plan for me and Natalie that my parents could be more involved in. He encouraged my parents to look through the lens of not only parents, but also consumers, who had the right to monitor what they were consuming rather than allowing a doctor to lead them through a process they did not fully understand.

As a result, I have just recently received vaccinations of the 15 immunizations and boosters that children are supposed to receive in their first 15 months because of my alternative immunization schedule. However, as Natalie and I get older, my family’s growing awareness of the risk of some diseases, like bacterial meningitis, has inspired more of an appreciation for the benefits of vaccinations.

My mother said: “If I had a do-over with Katelyn, I wish I could have educated myself more about vaccinations instead of blindly following the doctor’s recommendations. Even though I may still have followed the doctor’s suggestions, at least I would have understood the effects of vaccinations, which I am very aware of now.”