As a doctor, I greet a mother's fear with compassion — even her fear of vaccines

With Mother’s Day upon us, I have been reflecting on the power of a mother’s love and the impact that power has when harnessed and deployed in service of her child.

I bring to this space of contemplation the full scope of my life experience. I am a Black woman, and I am a physician. I was born and raised in Nigeria, where I attended medical school. I received my post-graduate education in the United States. I have practiced medicine in Nigeria, in Trinidad and Tobago, in rural Jamaica and Guyana, and in the American inner city, the Midwest and the well-heeled parts of the United States. I am a mother, a Black mother of two young black men who are growing up in the U.S. Though my boys are bigger than me and pretty much anyone around, I would still fight to the death to protect them.

I have seen and experienced through my journey what it means to feel unheard, invisible, undervalued. I know what it means to be desperate to be able to provide for, properly care for, or protect your child. And through it all, what it looks like to channel grit and resilience and fierce resourcefulness in the quest to do what is needed to survive, to thrive and to make sure your child achieves their full destiny.

In my tenure as a physician, I have seen mothers go to great lengths to protect their children. I once met a mother whose child had Lennox-Gastaut syndrome — a terrible disease that caused her child to experience seizures every few minutes — carry her little one on her back and travel all over the world in search of a cure, losing everything else in her life in the process, including her marriage. Another mother, who had triplets born too soon, literally went on her knees and wiped down the entire hospital room with tiny alcohol square pads. Why? One of her triplets was admitted with RSV bronchiolitis, a condition that is particularly dangerous in preemies and multiple births; she was terrified that the infection would be transmitted to the other two. In Nigeria, I saw poor mothers who walked several miles in the heat to get vaccines to protect their babies. They had seen some of those vaccine-preventable diseases take lives right in their villages.

I recognize the same ferocity today in mother’s who refuse vaccines for their babies. In light of the current resurgence of vaccine-preventable diseases, there is an understandable amount of irritation and animus against these mothers. However, in my passionately pro-vaccine pediatric practice, I focus on compassion in my approach to this conversation. I understand what it means to be desperately in love with this little human who has been trusted into your care and want to do everything in your power to protect your baby.

First and foremost, I honor the mother’s intent. I acknowledge her intent to be a good mother and steward of her child’s health. Then I provide her the education and tools she needs to make a different decision. I give her materials to read, reputable websites she can use as resources. I make myself and my team available to answer any and all questions she may have. I repeat this process every chance I get. I understand the motive behind her hesitancy. It is born out of love for her baby and fear of doing anything that she feels may bring harm, all the more so by her own hand. That instinct is the same whether she’s trying to protect her child from injury, disability or death.

A vaccine for measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR), was among the three inoculations that 1-year-old, Abel Zhang, received at International Community Health Services in Seattle on Feb. 13, 2019. As his mother, Wenyi Zhang, holds him, Abel looks at the book being given him by Dr. Lauren Lawler, right, while his grandmother, Ding Hong, helps with his clothes moments after the last of the inoculations. (Photo by Elaine Thompson/AP)

I see that same love and fear in her eyes when the same mother comes running to the office with the same baby because she’s heard of the measles epidemic and she wants her baby immunized. I have found it critical in my work to recognize that both actions emerge from the unique and fierce love of a mother for her child. Certainly, this approach does not always work, but it is a philosophy that more readily opens the door for a conversation of mutual respect and understanding.

I often tease my patients by saying that so much of motherhood is about pain and guilt — what did I do, what did I not do. No woman that I know has ever been discouraged from mothering her child in the way she wants by being told that she is being unreasonable. Indeed, that is part of the deal. My approach as a clinician, or as a friend or sister, is to partner with her in her journey, allay her fears as best I can, answer her questions and give her the best tools to accomplish her mission to be the best possible mother to her child.

As we celebrate mothers this weekend, let us harness the power of their love in our quest to improve the health and well-being of all children.

Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors

Dr. Nwando Anyaoku

Nwando Anyaoku

Nwando Anyaoku is the executive medical director of pediatrics for Swedish Health Services.