By Hennie Slotemaker / Herald Forum
I have no recollection of my fourth birthday. The circumstances and situations surrounding my birthday are very clearly in my mind. Our family lived in the tiny country of the Netherlands. The country was slowly recovering from five years of German occupation during World War II. It was 1951, and our mother had taken all six of her children to get vaccinated against diphtheria. It turned out the I was not eligible for the vaccine yet because I was not yet in school.
So, I spent seven weeks, including my fourth birthday, in the diphtheria ward of the provincial hospital. It was complete isolation from everyone and everything that was familiar to me, while my body battled this deadly disease. The large room had several beds along one side and cribs for infants along the other. I know that some of the infants came and went. Did they die? I don’t know. I never asked.
I have no memory of being in pain or afraid. I knew that I had to endure what happened to me, and I did. I also know that I never felt alone because our mother had already told me that Jesus is a friend who is always with you. She couldn’t stay with me, but I knew that Jesus was there. I was never afraid.
Less than two years later our whole family went to get vaccinated against smallpox. We were going to America! In the U.S.A. we did not have to fear diseases like smallpox or diphtheria, but we did have to be vaccinated. What an exciting journey we had! Ten days on an ocean liner across the Atlantic, and then, almost as many days going cross-country on the train. I remember the whole family standing solemnly on the deck of the ship holding hands, as we sailed past the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor. We were coming to the land of freedom and opportunity.
Southern California with its orange blossoms, sunshine and warm sandy beaches seemed almost like paradise, but it was not. It also had dangers and illnesses to fear. When our school bus drove past a large hospital on warm afternoons we could see odd hot dog-shaped machines with people’s heads sticking out. These were iron lungs. They kept polio patients alive. In 1956 when they did polio vaccination tests on school children, we didn’t hesitate. We rolled up our sleeves gladly. We knew that countless lives would be saved through vaccinations.
The Lord has blessed me with seven decades of birthdays since 1951. I have had many vaccinations since then. When our three children were infants I took them gladly to get all their vaccines, so they didn’t have to suffer from diseases like diphtheria, smallpox or polio.
When my husband and I got older we started getting flu vaccinations regularly. The year 2014 stands out because that was the year that our flu shots were not available for a short time. Yes, we both got the flu. My husband actually had to be resuscitated in the emergency room before he was stabilized. Since he suffers from Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, we didn’t hesitate to get covid vaccinations when they were available.
It meant a small amount of freedom for us, but we also did it for others. Children need to be protected from diseases. If we can do a small part making our country safer for the children of our country, we are happy to do so.
Hennie Slotemaker is a retired educational therapist and lives in Lake Stevens with her husband of 55 years, Tom.