This is the second in an occasional series about the everyday vaccine heroes of Texas. These aren’t the politicians or researchers or the authors of books. Rather, their personal experiences have made them deeply aware of the need to protect the public from vaccine-preventable diseases. Everyday vaccine heroes reach out beyond those personal situations to improve the health of the entire state.
Riki Graves came to vaccine heroism via an extraordinary, life-challenging experience for both her and her daughter. It’s a story so touching that even vaccine-doubting legislators feel compelled to sit and listen to her, about her healthy, happy toddler whose life could be threatened by vaccine-preventable disease and who can be protected only if almost all the people around her have received their immunizations.
Four-plus years ago, Graves went for what should have been a routine early-pregnancy checkup. She was only six weeks pregnant with her second child. Wisely, Graves asked the doctor to check a lump she had found in her breast. Testing showed it to be cancerous.
A couple of decades ago, Graves would have had to make a choice between chemotherapy and her pregnancy. Tremendous strides have been made since then and she was able to get the treatment she needed for her cancer while continuing the pregnancy.
But then came a second wave of devastating medical news. The fetus had serious heart defects. The initial plan was to surgically fix the problem after birth, but as it turned out, their baby girl’s defects were inoperable.
“We were given a choice,” Graves said. “Take her home for whatever time she had, or try for a heart transplant.”
The chances of finding a donor heart for a days-old baby were miniscule – but it happened within a couple of weeks. A healthy heart from a newborn baby became available for tiny Juliana.
“It was such a strong, perfect heart. That was a miracle,” Graves said. “So far, her body has accepted the organ as though it’s hers.”
Even so, Juliana, now an active 3½-year-old who attends preschool, must take immunosuppressants to keep her body from rejecting the extraordinary gift of life. That means she cannot be given vaccines made from live, weakened viruses, such as measles, mumps, rubella and chickenpox. At the same time, the suppression of her immune system makes her vulnerable to illness.
“The biggest threat to Juliana is an infectious disease,” Graves said. “Every time we’re in the hospital, it’s not heart related, it’s from an infectious disease.”
Juliana relies on herd immunity, then, to protect her from vaccine-preventable diseases. If enough children at her school and in her community are vaccinated, that keeps disease out of the population – and away from Juliana. It’s important for her to attend a school with high vaccination rates, but that’s not information that Graves can get easily. Under current Texas law, the information isn’t easily available.
Graves and her husband Chris moved from Corpus Christi to Houston to be near the medical care that Juliana needs. At the local school attended by their 6-year-old son Benjamin, 97.5 percent of the students have had their vaccinations. That’s a good, protective number, but Graves has reason to fret: an increasing number of Texas parents each year files to exempt their children from vaccines. If the number falls below 95 percent by the time Juliana attends, she could be at risk.
“The idea that we could end back in the intensive care unit because someone didn’t vaccinate their kid, that’s really scary,” Graves said.
The potential threat to Juliana and other medically fragile children like her motivated Graves, who works for Texas Children’s Health Plan, to advocate for vaccination. She tells her story to the media to help spread word about the importance of having more protective vaccination laws. There are many ways in which parents and other interested people can get involved in advocating for immunization, whether they have a lot or a little time to give. To find out how, go to http://www.immunizetx.com/join-us.html.
This year, Graves brought her story to the Texas Capitol in an effort to persuade lawmakers to pass the Parents’ Right to Know bill, which would have made information about public-school vaccination rates readily available to parents. Unfortunately, it didn’t pass after some parents complained – inaccurately – that making the rates public would mean revealing information about their children. The bill would have provided only the overall data for a school, with no identifying information about individual children or classes.
“I don’t care which child is and isn’t vaccinated,” Graves said. “I just need to know if the school is safe for Juliana.”
She plans to go on telling her remarkable story, on behalf of the children who would benefit from a well-vaccinated state.
“I believe in the importance of public health,” Graves said. “I like to tell my story, because we have a happy ending.”
And she aims to keep it that way.
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