How an 18 year old high-school student found himself testifying before congress

The vaccine debate is one that has grasped the attention of the nation and the world at large for decades now. For most people however, this controversy is that seems unimportant. The majority of Americans get vaccines and simply view them as couple shots administered because a doctor strongly recommended them. No side effects, no reactions, and no real issue. But some people find this discussion to be much more personal.

That’s the case for me. I grew up in a home with an anti-vaxx mother who believes vaccines caused brain damage, autism, and do not contribute to the health and safety of a society. The only two shots I ever did receive were a tetanus and Hepatitis B shot when I was 2 months old. After that, nothing. For 16 years I didn’t receive a single shot, and all my life I’ve never been vaccinated against diseases like measles, chicken pox, or even polio

Growing up I knew I wasn’t vaccinated, and my mom spoke openly about her beliefs. She stressed the danger of vaccines on social media, to friends, and to my family. I didn’t really understand what a vaccine was, why it was so important, and why this was even a big deal. In school, I’d be pulled out of class and brought to the principal's office almost every year. The school staff would say I haven't received any of the necessary shots to attend school. But the same thing happened every year, my mom would exempt me from the shots and nothing would happen.

This is really strange to some people, because for most Americans there is no debate regarding vaccines. There is no argument. They’re just a part of life and the small group that disagrees aren’t that big of a deal. But in a way, I was a health concern in my school. My community and individuals that could not receive vaccines were placed at a higher risk to contract a preventable disease, all because of the misinformation my mom held onto.

For years I attempted to explain to my mom why she was misinformed. I would take statistics and evidence which firmly showed her beliefs were incorrect, but that didn’t change anything. I remember showing my mom an article by the CDC that explained why vaccines in no way cause autism. Her response was a simple, “that’s what they want you to think.”

Eventually I turned 18, and for those unfamiliar with the situation, depending on what state you live in there is a certain age in which a minor can receive specific medical treatments without parental consent. Immunizations are one such medical procedure, and in Ohio I had to wait until I turned 18 to make that decision because of such laws in place. I remember calling my mom after explaining how I wanted to pursue vaccines and her response was immediate backlash. She was hurt and angry I wanted to speak to a doctor and get these shots despite how strongly she felt.

But I did it anyways. I spoke to my family physician and received a Hep B, Hep A, tetanus, influenza, and HPV 1 shot back in December. A huge factor in taking that step to ensure my own health was the website “Reddit.” There, I made a post that had a huge response where I asked how to get my necessary shots. After thousands of comments, I made that appointment and eventually got those 5 vaccinations. Since then, numerous articles and interviews delved into my circumstance and decision. I was on Fox news, NBC, GMA, you name it. It was wild, because while I was growing up all I did was basic research and slowly found myself in opposition to my mothers opinions. I took responsibility and did something every person should do. It wasn’t special in any way.

However, my story and this conversation is important. Not because of my specific circumstance, but because of its implications. Regardless of your circumstance, vaccines protect the health and safety of not only yourself but other people. Certain individuals are what’s known as “immunocompromised” or “immunodeficient.” These people have extremely weak immune systems for one reason or another and can not receive a vaccine even if they wanted to. Their body is so weak it cannot fight the disease within an immunization, and if they contracted that disease in its strongest form...the consequences are major. Babies, toddlers, and the elderly are also at a higher risk for serious damage or even death from the numerous preventable diseases we can vaccinate against.

This was the biggest reason I got vaccinated despite my mothers views. Vaccines are not important because you might  avoid the inconvenience of chicken pox. It’s important because someone could die if you didn’t. The risk of vaccines are so minor and the benefit is so major that each individual, even if they’re a teenager, has a personal responsibility to be informed and get their shots.

This pursuit of truth placed me on a large platform, spreading throughout the entire country and even landing outside of my nations borders. I had interviews from people in Australia, Berlin, Italy, and the UK. It was strange, but I was grateful the situation was centered around my pursuit for truth and not controversy.

Eventually I get in contact with some staff members that work for Committee of health, education, labor, and pensions chairman Lamar Alexander. They express some interest in having me testify in front of the committee, and I agree to go. I plan to do a hole blog post explaining how wild this trip was, but we’ll get there eventually.

Some people find it confusing why I went to this hearing, and what purpose my words served. But a personal story is important for even congress to hear so they can see the implications of the discussion at hand. If a committee is speaking about the issue of cancer research or cancer as a disease, they may invite a cancer patient. Of course they’re no expert, but the perspective they provide shows the importance of the topic. For me, my perspective was one of a teenager who grew up around these beliefs that contributed to the issue at hand; preventable disease outbreaks.

I found myself in front of congress because I voiced what was important to me, and stood up for what is true. Anyone can do that, even young people. Adolescent advocates are just as valuable as anyone else because age doesn’t take away from the truth of your experiences.