The following blog was written by Dr. Samantha Hill (pictured above), President Elect of the Ontario Medical Association. The blog reflects her opinion and not that of the OMA. It was published in the Medical Post, but is being republished here for those who do not have access to that site.
It’s an interesting experience, being yelled at by a room full of angry people. It’s not something physicians encounter regularly. Professional criticism is usually subtle: askew glances, rejected papers, absent promotions. Decades of schooling had not prepared me to stand in a room full of people yelling “shame”.
On Monday, I (and others) deputed at the Toronto Board of Health on the merits of vaccination. We were met by a large crowd of angry people. I was heckled, jeered at, and even photographed for later attacks on social media.
The aggressive opposition was unexpected, especially when presenting on something as factually obvious as vaccines. Among doctors, this isn’t a debate. We KNOW the benefits outweigh the risks. We know it more certainly than we know many other things in medicine. Vaccines work. Vaccines are safe. Vaccines are vital to our communities’ well-being.
“Liar, you’re all just in it for the money”, someone yelled. I was angry, defensive, and incredulous. And above it all there was a sense of surrealism, surely this can’t be real?
But sitting in town hall for 5 hours listening to a crowd of passionate parents and advocates beg that they be allowed not to vaccinate their children I had time to work through some of that. I had time to get past my perspective and reactions. So I listened. Prior to speaking (and being identified), I exchanged smiles with the mother nursing her infant to quiet them, with the mother patting her young daughter’s head while she colored quietly, with the two boys a little older than my eldest who after a few hours of sitting were getting antsy. There were no smiles after I spoke. But still, I listened.
A young lady, presented to the Board passionately about bodily autonomy, scholastic freedom, and freedom of choice. While I disagree with her stance entirely, I was, in an odd way, proud of this fierce young woman. She was clear and articulate and witty. I wanted to congratulate her on her activism, on her bravery, on questioning authority figures. I wanted to tell her how impressed I was, and how I was sure she was going to be successful in life, a voice for change, a voice for those who might need help finding their own. But that would have been inappropriate and likely unwelcome. And my heart broke a little, that I as a female physician couldn’t offer this mentorship and support, that in this critical space, doctors were neither trusted nor respected.
Another woman pleaded with the Board to find compassion for those gathered, who sought only to protect their young. And I wondered, how do you tell people who are so certain, that the actions we take that they oppose, are in fact borne out of compassion? Compassion for all the children at risk by being unvaccinated? Compassion for bereaved mothers of children now deceased from preventable infectious diseases? Compassion for cancer patients who are already fighting for their lives, that they not be subjected to yet another battle? It would be perceived as paternalistic and demeaning. My heart broke a little more.
I heard people decry feeling silenced and coerced, being thought of as uneducated or uninformed. Mostly, though, I heard fear. Profound soul-shattering fear. The instinct to protect our young from a perceived threat is deep-seated; this is a fear that doesn’t allow for logic, or rationality.
Suspend your medical training, your knowledge for a moment. Imagine being cornered, feeling that the doctors and nurses were out to hurt your child, that the government was complicit and supporting them, that YOU were the last line of defense for your children from absolute inevitable severe harm. Imagine that for a moment. Stay in that place. Become uncomfortable. In fact, the horror must be untenable. I was a parent before I was President-Elect of the OMA. I would stand in front of a firing range for my children. My heart breaks entirely.
It’s an easy stance, being firmly on the side of science, insisting that population health supersedes individual choice. In fact, I salute the Board of Health on taking a leadership stance on this issue. It’s hard to hold a space of compassion for the “anti-vaxxers”, to remember that behind their hurtful words and upsetting actions, they are simply terrified and angry parents trying to do their best for their children. But as I walked away from town hall on Monday, my broken heart demanded that I try.