Mr. Vaccine needs a vaccine

I always took vaccines for granted. They were just part of life, something you did to keep your kids safe, like strapping them into a bike helmet or seatbelt. But when one of my twins, barely out of infancy, was diagnosed with a very rare pediatric lung disease and put on oxygen 24/7, it became clear just how vulnerable he was, and just how damaging an illness could be to his already compromised immune system. This fear was compounded by the fact that we had to postpone the MMR due to this underlying illness.

We worried what measles could do to our son.

Fun fact: our son was diagnosed with autism before getting the MMR. Take that, Andy Wakefield!

Anyway. Because I have an autistic son, and a lot of people like to demonize both autism and vaccines by saying the former is due to the latter, and the latter is worse than dying from a preventable childhood disease, I became stridently pro-vaccine. Yes, I know there are risks. But the societal benefits of vaccination greatly outweigh them. Hey, sometimes a seatbelt does more harm than good, but you’re still going to buckle your kid up, right?

U.S. measles cases by year. (Source: CDC)

Although mealses was declared eradicated in the U.S. in 2000, thanks to anti-vax misinformation campaigns, it’s making a healthy little comeback; as of this writing, the CDC reports 839 cases in 23 states. In Brooklyn where we live, there have been 466 cases so far this year; dozens of these cases resulted in hospitalizations, some in critical condition. (And don’t get me started on places like Madagascar, with over 118K measles cases and almost 1,700 deaths so far in 2019.)

So you can imagine my surprise when I learned last week that I needed to get the measles vaccine. Yup, Mr. Vaccine needs to get a childhood immunization.

How’d this happen? Unclear. I recently read that people born in the 60s and 70s should get their titers checked. Sometimes our parents forgot to get us immunized (damned latchkey generation); sometimes immunizations—particularly older ones—fail to confer lifelong immunity. Whatever the case, it seemed like good advice.

So, off to the doctor I went.

“I’m sure you’re fine,” she said, somewhat skeptically.

“Just to be safe,” I replied cheerily.

Blood was drawn, tests were performed.

Bing! went the notification from my healthcare provider’s app two days later. “The results of your recent blood test are back. You are not immune to measles and need to schedule a time to come in and get the vaccine.” And so I shall. After all, I gotta walk the walk, right?

With measles making a comeback, now’s a good time to get your titers checked, too. I hear there’s a lollipop after the shot.

Farewell to a short bus

He’s been riding them for years. Some were terrible, others were okay. One was great.

One night while giving Colin a bath, I noticed small red marks all over his torso. He couldn’t tell me their origin, but after some cajoling I came to understand that his bus matron was pinching him when he was “too loud.”

This was a low point, but there were others. One short bus was just a beat-up yellow minivan blasting reggae music. Other buses had no a/c despite New York City’s notoriously hot and soggy summers. One had no heat: foggy clouds emanated from the driver’s mouth as he greeted Colin one January morning.

Not happy after a long ride on a hot day with no a/c

Not happy after a long ride on a hot day with no a/c

One belched blue smoke and broke down regularly. It died its final death on a highway overpass during rush hour. The matron had to transfer the kids through traffic to a replacement bus when it arrived an hour later. Another short bus was perpetually late and the bus company’s only phone number was a single cell phone. Always busy.


These stories aren’t unique to Colin’s buses. One friend waited two hours for his autistic son to arrive home. The driver wasn’t responding to calls from the bus company, and no one knew where they were or why they were late. No explanation was offered.

Another parent’s non-verbal autistic child was dropped off at the wrong stop. Fortunately, a good samaritan saw the young boy wandering around, realized something was amiss, and went to work figuring out where the boy belonged. Had it not been for the kind stranger, all could have ended badly.


People make fun of short buses. In fact, the term “short bus” is often used as an ableist slur, one so common even evangelical Mike Huckabee thought it was an appropriate way to insult people. (Which begs the question, is there an appropriate way to insult people?)

But these short buses aren’t a joke, and they’re far more than a utility; for special needs parents, they’re a lifeline. And all we ask is that our kids make it from home to school and back without incident. We entrust our children to strangers who earn little more than minimum wage, and who have little if any training in special needs. And, in fairness, most of them do their jobs competently, if with little enthusiasm.

 

Median salary for a New York City school bus driver, via salary.com

Last week, however, we said goodbye to a very good bus. A great bus, in fact. It was clean and dent-free. It was quiet, with tinted windows to reduce heat and glare. Both the air conditioning and heat were effective, and it hummed like a sewing machine. Oh, and it was a hybrid.

None of that made the bus great, however. Alex and Mariana, the driver and matron, made the bus great.

 

Colin getting ready for his last ride to school with Mariana and Alex

Colin getting ready for his last ride to school with Mariana and Alex

Each morning Colin is greeted with big smiles. “Good morning, Colin!” they cheer. Mariana asks how his day is going so far. “Great!” he says as he bounds up the bus steps, backpack flopping behind him.

Colin taps the dashboard clock when he gets on, time being something of an obsession for him. Some drivers have scowled, one used to swat his hand away, as if the clock were some kind of mission-critical flight instrumentation. Not Alex: he laughs, confirms the time with Colin, and gives him a fist bump or high five. And why not? You could set your watch by Alex’s arrival times. And when the bus is running behind, they send texts so we can prepare Colin to deal with his “schedule anxiety.”

Some matrons report every infraction—he was too loud; he banged on the bus window; he yelled when we got stuck in traffic—but not Mariana. On the occasions when I’ve asked how Colin is behaving, she smiles and says, “He’s fine.” Translation: “Sure, he sometimes does things he shouldn’t, but we’ve got this.” (Thank you for not making everything a problem we have to solve.)


Colin rides the bus for up to three hours every school day, and for the past several months, we’ve had the good fortune of knowing he’s riding with Alex and Mariana, two people who not only do their job ably, but who genuinely care about the children in their charge. Two people who won’t earn any extra money for being good and kind, but who do so anyway.

Sadly, today was Colin’s last day on the best short bus he’s ever had. We’re grateful for the peace of mind you’ve given us, Alex and Mariana, and for the care and affection you’ve shown our son. Maybe, if the stars align, you’ll be picking Colin up again in the Fall. Either way, you’ll always hold a special place in our hearts.

TED Talk: "To understand autism, don't look away"

Today's TED Talk has an important, moving message. As this autism mom says, "There is no need to be an expert nor do anything heroic to include someone. We just need to be there...we simply need to be close. And if we are afraid of something or we don't understand something, we need to ask." It's seven minutes, and well worth it. Note: the talk is in Spanish with English subtitles.