Did Rebecca Gayheart Get My Swine Flu Vaccine?
If it wasn’t for an upcoming trip to Bali, I probably wouldn’t have bothered with the swine flu vaccine. True, I have a compromised immune system and my doctor told me to get one. True, I get a regular flu vaccine most years. But for whatever reason, I wasn’t feeling it this time around. Maybe I had succumbed to the early news reports that the vaccine hadn’t been properly tested, or maybe I just didn’t feel like dealing with another needle.
But then, I thought of Bali. The chance of contracting swine flu during my 10-hour flight to China or my five-hour flight from there to Indonesia, and languishing in a Jakarta hospital with swine flu ravaging my delicate immune system scared the crap out of me. I realized that I could pull a Spencer and Heidi and wear a facemask throughout my trip. Or I could have some self-respect and get the vaccine.
I went on the Los Angeles Department of Public Health website to find the vaccine locations nearest me. There was one about a mile away at Santa Monica College in a few days. Perfect. I’d heard about the long vaccine lines — lines reminiscent of Communist Russia. I wanted to mitigate my chances of ending up on one of those, so I called the helpline to confirm the time and get some advice on how early I might need to arrive. “It’s one of the only places on the west side of LA where they’re giving vaccines,” the woman on the other end of the line told me. “I’d get there early.” In other words, Communist Russia.
I was only willing to go an hour in advance, which put me in the vicinity of the college at about 8 am on the appointed day. I circled for 15 minutes searching unsuccessfully for non-permit parking, until finally, I decided I would risk getting a parking ticket. If it cost me $61 to avoid the Indonesian healthcare system, it would be worth it.
When I took my place at the end of the line, there were about 300 people ahead of me, including parents with kids in strollers and solo adults who presumably had health issues. This is LA, so you’d think it might be nice to spend the morning on a college campus, gazing up at palm trees and reading a book while you slowly inched forward in your quest for a medical prophylactic. But on this particular day, it was cold, damp, and gray. Think Seattle.
After about 15 minutes, a woman shivering on line behind me decided to search out the college bookstore – she needed a sweatshirt. Did I want one? Nah, I’d wait to see if it warmed up. I wasn’t feeling desperate enough yet to invest in a community college sweatshirt. I offered to save her spot in line, and when she returned 20 minutes later wearing a not-half-bad-looking black sweatshirt, I hadn’t moved more than a few feet.
At around this time, I received a text message from a friend who filled me in on the Canadian method of distributing swine flu vaccines: through doctors who call their at-risk patients and have them come in for Saturday clinics. No lines. Totally sane. The furthest thing from Communist Russia. I spread this news to my neighbors on the line, and the couple ahead of me revealed that their son, who didn’t fall into any of the risk groups, had been offered a vaccine by his physician. Just like that. We shook our heads, bewildered.
Meanwhile, several hundred more people had joined the line, and all around us, kids were becoming separated from their parents, strollers were abandoned, and a college-aged guy fell asleep on the side of a fountain with his ukulele on his stomach. A communal vibe began to develop amid the chaos – like what happens during a blackout or a natural disaster. The sweatshirt woman, the couple, and I shared pens for the paperwork we needed to fill out, took turns going in search of Red Cross nurses bearing information, and eavesdropped on other conversations.
And we waited. An hour. Two hours. In Seattle-like weather.
I finally decided it was time for a sweatshirt and a bathroom break. Off I went while my immuno-compromised friends held my spot for me. I picked the same black sweatshirt, dodged into the cafeteria to use the bathroom, and maybe 15 minutes later, emerged to find that the line had barely moved. Now it was two-and-a-half hours into the wait. Sweatshirt friend was getting hungry. She would scout out the cafeteria for us, she said. When she came back with a handful of menus, she was elated. They would be serving lunch in about 15 minutes and they had Kung Pao chicken. Kung Pao chicken! A social worker at UCLA medical center, she knew from college cafeterias. Kung Pao was a score. Forget that it was 10:45 am.
And then a surprising thing happened: The line moved. Giddy with the momentum and the promise of actually getting stabbed in the arm today, we finally formally introduced ourselves to each other: Sweatshirt/Kung Pao-enthusiast was Joanne, and the couple were Cynthia and Paul.
At this point, we’d been waiting nearly three hours. Joanne proposed that we make bets on when we’d finally get to the front of the line. Gambling! Fun! 1:30, Joanne guessed. 2:00, said Cynthia. Noon, a shockingly optimistic Paul said. I knew that I could only stay until around 3:30, and I was prepared to do just that.
Paul had adopted a small stroller whose owner and occupant had gone AWOL, and he was pushing it along as we inched forward. Cynthia went and got herself a sweatshirt, and now the three of us women matched. I joked that depending on how things went today, we might walk away saying: “I went for a swine flu vaccine and all I got was this lousy sweatshirt.” We laughed, convinced that it wouldn’t actually come to that.
And then suddenly, we hit the swine-flu-vaccine jackpot. “Adults without children, follow me,” beckoned a Red Cross worker. Paul and Cynthia were so stunned they didn’t immediately join the adults-only line. But within a few minutes, the four of us were reassembled very close to the entrance of the school gym, where the vaccines were being administered.
At around this time, we noticed another line, for pregnant women, snaking along the far side of the gym. The actress Rebecca Gayheart was ushered past us with a small group of other pregnant women over to that much-shorter line. I confided to my friends that for a split-second I’d contemplated making a break for the pregnant-women line. Who would know the difference? But my conscience and a feeling of optimism that surely I would be able to get a vaccine the legit way helped set me straight.
Here’s the point in the story where I reveal that I did not get the vaccine the legit way or any other way. At noon, right after an unfortunate trip to the vending machine that resulted in the ingestion of bacon and cheddar potato skins – perhaps the low point of the entire day – a nurse came out of the gym and spread the news along the line that the only remaining vaccines were the ones they squirt up your nose. Live vaccines, they’re called.
I had been forbidden by my doctor to accept one of these vaccines, and my friends couldn’t get them either. Live vaccines are too dangerous for the immuno-suppressed.
We were stunned. Had the unthinkable just happened? Would we really be leaving without puncture wounds after spending nearly four hours on line? Would I have the stamina to stand on another such line on another day? Would I eventually end up on a hospital gurney in Jakarta with a 106 fever? Could I have caught swine flu just by having spent so much time with so many people on this damn line in cold weather?
Even though I knew I couldn’t take the live vaccine, I was reluctant to give up my spot in line. It seemed wrong to quit when we’d come so close. But finally, a wave of acceptance swept over me. Maybe those facemasks wouldn’t be so bad after all? The four of us said our goodbyes and disbanded. We walked away with just our lousy sweatshirts.
From left, Cynthia, Joanne, and me.
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