I am a specialist in Intensive Care Medicine.
Throughout my career I have looked after many patients with vaccine preventable disease. I have cared for people in Intensive Care with tetanus, pertussis, mumps, influenza, chicken pox, shingles, rotavirus, cervical cancer, hepatitis, meningococcal disease, pneumococcal disease, tuberculosis, Japanese encephalitis, Haemophilus influenzae. They and their families suffered horribly. You can’t be so sick that you need Intensive Care, and not suffer.
For nearly 10 years I worked in rural and remote Australia, in the Kimberley, Far North Queensland, Alice Springs, and the Top End. I worked in Intensive Care, and also as a retrieval medicine specialist, flying with the RFDS and CareFlight to remote parts of Australia to critically ill and injured people, in order to stabilize them and try and get them back to a hospital.
The work was challenging, funny, interesting, tiring, and a whole lot more. BUT, it was also upsetting and frustrating. I have seen heartbreaking tragedy — physical pain and suffering, social pain and suffering, and harrowing grief, on a scale that is incomprehensible. It leaves scars. The best I have been able to do professionally is ‘stick a band aid’ on that pain, and survive the burn-out that comes with the intensity of the work.
As part of my career path, I also worked in a kids Intensive Care (PICU) for 6 months. On my first day at work there, I admitted a baby with pertussis (whooping cough). He survived, and was discharged from PICU on the last day that I worked there, 6 months later. He was still dependent on oxygen, and may always be. He may well also have sustained brain damage but it was too early to tell. He was such a cute baby.
The second baby I saw in PICU with pertussis did not survive.
It was in PICU, at that time, that I first heard of the anti-vaccination movement.
Since then, I have made a home in the Northern Rivers, and I have discovered that this was the ‘headquarters’ of the anti-vaccination movement, people who are deliberately pushing an agenda, for financial gain, that will lead to death, pain, grief, and suffering. This, to me, is beyond unacceptable.
There is a prayer out there that says
“Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference”
There is also an expression in safety management that says “something is only as safe as the issue you are prepared to walk past”.
I couldn’t change things in the Northern Territory, I couldn’t even continue trying without damaging my own health, but I have come to realize that the fight to increase vaccination rates is something I cannot, and will not, walk past.
I feel it is my duty, my responsibility, to do everything I can to try and help people understand that they have been making their decisions not to vaccinate with absolutely the best intentions, but based on the myths and misinformation that is so widespread in our community.
That is why I am here.
Dr Rachel Heap, FCICM, MRCP, MBBS, BMedSci