I am not vaccinated, and it is not by choice. What would you do in my place?

Photo by Shoeib Abolhassani on Unsplash

Two-and-a-half years ago, I nearly died. This is more than a dramatic opening line. It is something that I am constantly reminded of, ironically, as COVID-19 vaccination drives around the world reach the booster stage, and I am yet to get my first shot. Lying in a hospital bed through the cricket and soccer world cups, being forcibly tucked in at home over three new year eves, three monsoon seasons, and after several missed dating connections and countless days, all I wish to do is grab my car keys, throw caution to the wind and get a cup of coffee.

No vaccine, no dice.

On a holiday abroad in the summer of 2019, I was diagnosed with Guillain-Barré Syndrome (GBS), a rare autoimmune disorder that turns your immune system rogue enough that it starts to suddenly, and viciously, attack your peripheral nervous system. One by one, your muscles shut down. Your lungs, intestines and heart slow down, you can’t move any of your muscles — not even your eyelids. The signals to your limbs are interrupted by the erosion of the myelin sheath that covers your nerves, which helps transmit signals to all your various moving body parts.

An accurate diagnosis, timely medical intervention, and an unwavering support system is all that stand between you and death, especially when your case is as severe as mine was.

Complete paralysis. Life support. Possible ECMO. Tracheostomy. Words and phrases I had only heard of in medical dramas on television. Now I can write Wiki entries on each. The recovery is slow and often painful. It’s a reversible disease that, even as it leaves you with various residual aches and pains, it also leaves you stronger than before. Except when it comes to offering up your arm for a simple preventive shot.

What’s truly scary is that it can happen to anyone at all. I don’t question why it happened to me. Not anymore. But I do have a question for anyone at all who can answer me: is it better to risk the vaccine and wait for it to throw up an unknown or bide my time till I (inevitably) get a strain of COVID-19 and am forced to take my chances with the known?

GBS is why I haven’t got a vaccine shot yet. This is something that haunts me more than the month spent, fully awake and aware, in an intensive care unit (ICU), unable to move or speak. It seems certain vaccines come with a side serving of GBS. Dr Anthony S Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the chief medical advisor to the president of the United States, had singled one group out, in his initial caution about the side effects of the COVID-19 vaccine: GBS survivors. Even though he has withdrawn that particular caution, no one quite knows what will happen in a specific case like mine. So, the warning has stuck.

Especially in the minds of many doctors and families like mine. To be fair, they all saw me almost slip away and fought their hardest to keep me alive. ‘Fairly recent’, some of them argue, when I ask why no vaccine, ‘rare and severe’, others add.

My life, as I knew it, is no longer my own. No matter how little I worry about its preservation. I should worry more than others, I know, but it’s a difficult thing to explain to a veritable hedonist. Besides, for someone who thrived on taking chances, this is one thing that is not being left to chance, even as it skews my chances of living a normal life in the near future.

I don’t blame my champions for erring on the side of caution. The question is: when I no longer fear the end, which side should I lean toward? Is it better to risk the vaccine and wait for it throw up an unknown or bide my time till I (inevitably) catch some variant of COVID-19 and am forced to take my chances with the known? Is it better to take a risk and be true to myself or risk being locked up till someone changes their mind for me?

Tell me: what would you do?

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The Truth About Nobody_PS

The Truth About Nobody_PS

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Preeti Singh is a former editor, journalist and a keen observer of policy issues. She now works as a freelance public engagement and communications specialist.