My Vaccine Memories

My vaccine memories are personal ones from my childhood. But these are colored from my years in biomedical research when protecting people from infectious diseases like hepatitis C and HIV was an unreachable goal. We still don’t have a vaccine for either virus.

Have a look at the History of Vaccines site, from the College of Physicians of Philadelphia to see how far we have come with other vaccines, like measles.

Dark Childhood Memories

The summer before I began kindergarten, my sister stayed in bed for a long time, unable to move. I don’t know how many days or weeks it was, but we thought it would be for a long time, maybe forever.

FDRMy mom said my sister had something like polio, and told me the story of our past president Franklin Roosevelt (shown with his dog Fala). He was paralyzed by the disease for life. This is how I came to know about polio. The word became terrifying. I thought, no one wants their sister to lie in bed unable to move, thinking their days will go on like that until the end. Not if they have a choice.

Later the doctor identified my sister’s infection as a different virus – an echo virus, or one of the coxsackie viruses which can cause paralysis. We lived near the town of Coxsacki, in upstate New York, but as a child, I didn’t ever understand how that was related to her paralysis. In time, she recovered. She stood up, and with a lot of undivided attention from my mom, she got to walking around and was just like normal again.

The Mystery of School Shots

When I started public school, we got all our vaccinations there. I don’t remember getting any before that, though I must have when I was a baby, because all the information was filled out on my vaccination record card. I still have it. There may come a day when we have to show it, if we start regulating adult vaccination.

I remember standing in a long line the day shots were given to all the school children. The floor was marble, the hallway was cold, the windows were cracked open, the air smelled of that strange particulate stuff they sprinkled over vomit in the public schools. I was small, maybe between five and seven, and silent as I could be, hoping to disappear.

The public school nurse and a teacher’s aide loomed over us children as we trailed along toward the front of the line. I imagine that we were dragging our feet, and though no one was talking, I remember both girls and boys crying.

No one wanted to get their shots, of course. I didn’t know which dread diseases the vaccination was to protect me from getting – we either didn’t talk about it, or it was not memorable.

Later, at home, my mom told me the story of why a neighbor’s youngest son was slow, and deaf, and couldn’t speak in a way any of us could understand. It was because she had suffered from German measles while she was pregnant with her son, and the disease affected him that way as he was growing inside her. The neighbor was one of the school aides, and whenever I saw her, I thought of her son and German measles. But when I was in school, which was where we got all our shots, no doctor or nurse ever said anything I remembered about how vaccines kept me from catching viral or bacterial infections. We could change that.

Children cried on the day we lined up for shots, afraid of needles I think. They baffled me. I had been sewing and knitting at home – or trying to – since I had been trying to write. So getting stuck with pins and needles while I was making doll clothes, aprons, and later my clothes, had become a kind of routine. And living near the woods where I spent much of my free time roaming around alone, running into things and falling over them, led to so many rips and tears in that fragile envelope of skin I had, that a little blood or a small scar didn’t bother me either.

The vaccine shot was not a big deal for me, except for this: I didn’t know the man who was doing it. Who was he? Was he trustworthy? Did he care about us kids? I had no idea. I think that this kind of internal questioning may still part of the experience for children who get vaccinated today.

The Routine of Vaccination

Freehold, New York

Freehold, New York

Before entering junior high and high school, I had to show vaccination records, and again before college. By then, getting immunized to meet the requirements had become routine. It was something I understood. I had been given tetanus shots more times than I cared to think of after things like rusty metal punctures from exposed nails in abandoned country barns. And from reading, I had learned about the unfathomable numbers who died from plagues of smallpox, measles, mumps, rubella, diphtheria, pertussis, and polio in history. I thought of the vaccines as helping keep me alive.

While we didn’t have any individual choice about getting vaccinated, that didn’t seem to matter to me, my parents, or anyone I knew at the time. This has really changed. Now with the newer vaccines like HPV (human papilloma virus) and chicken pox, more of us question the safety and ask about the risks in addition to the protections the shots can give.

Protection from Dreaded Diseases

When I started working with infectious diseases in science labs, vaccination for hepatitis B virus was required by OSHA, and still is. I thought of it as protection, and was eager to see my titers and know whether my antibodies had gotten up to the level needed to keep me safe.

When each new person joined the lab, I asked them if they had their shots first before getting them involved with the hepatitis B viral cultures, infected cells, or animals I worked with there. One of our younger students hadn’t had her hepatitis B shots, and I told her to go get them before she started working. It caused a conflict with the lab head, who overheard me. He wanted her to go ahead and start, and said the vaccine wasn’t important. He physically dragged me into his office, closed the door on me, and yelled for a while about who was in control.

I went to fill out a complaint for assault and for not following the OSHA regulations, at the school’s safety department. But the safety officer dismissed the scene without any action at all, giving me a stern warning, “politics is real.” I never figured that one out. But the memory is a raw reminder that we are not all in agreement about when vaccines are required, not even the people working in biomedical research who have strict regulations.

A Wish for New Vaccines

Working with HIV virus and hepatitis C virus infected blood, and cells, or animals during my graduate school years and then post-doctoral fellowships, we had no such luck – there were no vaccines. I can’t even describe the level of fear that it strikes into the heart knowing that you are handling things like that. They are viruses that infect and kill too many of thousands of people every year. I would wear gloves, move the materials around carefully, wash my hands all the time, and sometimes bag up my clothes when I came home.

I remember wishing we had vaccines for these viruses, too. I still do.

What are your vaccine memories?

 

Love Safe, You Might Be the Vector

Infectious diseases we pass on to the people we love are painful tragedies. We are vectors. Sometimes we’re a vector for change, for good, but sometimes what we pass on is a virus that’s fatal – and one we didn’t even know we had.

Dramatized in the Screen Actor’s Guild Award-winning “The Normal Heart”, in January 2015 Mark Ruffalo won best best male actor in a TV movie or miniseries for his portrait of facing HIV/AIDS. Male or female, young or old, black or white, no one is immune to the ever changing and highly mutable HIV virus. And it’s not because people are afraid of getting their immunizations, like we’ve seen with measles in the United States, or because we have a good reason not to get our shots. It’s only because we have no vaccine to prevent HIV infection.

Anyone could pass on viruses they don’t know they have, to someone else who has no idea what they are getting. Testing to find out if you are infected is getting easier, for the HIV virus. The latest is an HIV diagnostic smartphone dongle that gives results in 15 minutes, invented by a group at Columbia in New York City. Health workers are using it in areas of Rwanda in Africa, where access to healthcare is difficult for rural people.

In the United States, and even in New York City where I live, HIV infections are still surprisingly common. Many New Yorkers don’t know our status. For those who got tested and do know, NYC’s records show 2,832 people were newly diagnosed with HIV in 2013, and 1,527 people died of it here, with 117,618 now living in the city with an HIV positive diagnosis – this is in New York City’s 5 boroughs alone. On National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day February 7th, groups around the country are having events to raise awareness and get more people in their community tested. We don’t have a vaccine, but other prevention steps work, like using condoms and having safe sex.

“Get educated, get tested, get involved, get treated,” urges the National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day Strategic Planning Committee. There is so much a person can do. You can be an angel and prevent an infection. You can be a dragon slayer and get into a treatment program that controls the virus, to keep it from expanding further into our communities.

I wrote the novel Vector,  a story of a singer coming of age in New York City during the HIV epidemic, based on my own experiences in healthcare and biomedical research over the years as a scientist. Readers see the young woman’s HIV/AIDS journey through the eyes of her doctor who runs a clinic in New York.

Here’s an excerpt from the book, after a benefit ball to support the doctor’s HIV/AIDS foundation, when he is walking home through the city streets with his partner.

Book Excerpt

Vector a Modern Love Story – J.J.Brown

9780983821137

When Louis and Victor walked out of the hotel together onto Forty-Ninth Street, arm in arm, it was nearly three in the morning and cold, and a misty rain was falling. It was the tail end of the storm. The sidewalks were wet and crosswalks flooded at the corners where debris had collected in the runoff from the rain throughout the night.

“Are you alright?” Louis asked as they turned on Park Avenue.

Victor shrugged. He wondered why Louis seemed never to get tired.

“Worried about Julio?” Louis persisted.

“Of course.”

“You want us to get a ride?”

“No, no, let’s walk, please. It would be good for me to walk a bit. The thing is, no one’s seen him in a while, not at the clinic, no follow-up appointments, not at the counseling sessions, you know? It’s concerning.”

“Julio’s been depressed before. He’s been sick for a long time, Vic.”

Victor looked down as he spoke to avoid stepping in the deep pools of water at the corners. “And now he has the AIDS dementia. That’s the worst part of the disease, in my opinion. He’s been sick for years, four or five years, but now it’s changed him. It’s changed him completely. So difficult for Raul. And I think it, it may be more than that now, you know? It may be, it may be…”

He looked up and saw a homeless woman with thin blonde hair who was wearing a beautiful, billowing golden overcoat. She walked past them, drifting along in the middle of the street like an apparition. The contrast between the wretched woman and the fashionable coat was jarring. Dr. Victor stopped, looked at her and continued. “It may be the end.”

Louis snorted. “Don’t fixate on that part of it. Even if it is the end for Julio, death doesn’t define you. How many people in the history of the world died of one kind of venereal disease or another? How many plagues have come and gone? If you’re spared, what does it mean? Does it mean anything at all? And if a person died, do we say, ‘Well, so and so, they died of this or that’? It’s your life, not your death, that defines you.”

Victor looked up at him quizzically and felt infinitely grateful for the diversion Louis always provided on nights like this one.

“I’ll say a name and you say what you think of—ready? What you think of immediately, what you associate the name with. Don’t take time with it, don’t work on it.”

Victor nodded in agreement.

“Beethoven.”

“Sonatas. The Appassionata. Bliss.”

“That’s what I mean. How many people, when you say his name, think immediately of syphilis?”

Victor thought about it; in his profession, possibly a few.

“Casanova,” Louis continued.

“Love.”

“You see? You don’t right away think, ‘Oh, that’s the guy who used sheep’s gut for a condom tied with a pretty pink ribbon, and he still got syphilis anyway,’ do you? No. What about Shubert?”

“Dances. Ländler. Piano music.”

“And Cellini?”

“I see your point. Sculpture. Italy.” Victor laughed lightly.

“That’s what I’m saying. You don’t think about how they died from VD. Arthur Ashe?”

“First black tennis champion.”

“And Anthony Perkins—Psycho, right? The movie? Tell me: When I say their names, you remember what they did when they were alive, not how each of these men died from AIDS. Can’t you tell me that? I know you can.” Louis was almost pleading now.

“Ach! They did die of AIDS. Terrible. I’m a doctor. I think about these things. Let’s change the subject, can’t we? I’m afraid I’m going to cry.”

Louis continued very gently but determined. “Dear, I’m not finished with you yet. When I say ‘Rudolf Nureyev,’ what do you think? Hmm?”

“Of the most beautiful dancing of all time. Ballet. Russia. I know. I know.”

Victor observed the old woman in the yellow coat wandering in front of them. She sat down on a sidewalk bench in front of a dark café that was closed for the night. He watched her and he was immobilized. “I thought they were open all night,” he said weakly.

“Vic. Come on,” Louis urged.

“It’s just…”

“There’s nothing you can do right now, dear. Really, there isn’t.”

“Something isn’t right.”

“In there?” Louis gestured back toward the hotel. “Or out here?” Louis nodded toward the woman. She leaned back on the bench and covered her body carefully with the overcoat, pulling it around her bare, red and swollen feet. She was making a bed for herself.

“I don’t know.” Victor put a hand over his heart. “But I think in here.”

– J.J.Brown, Vector a Modern Love Story

Where to Find the Book

You can buy Vector in print and ebook editions here:  Amazon   /   iTunes   /  Barnes & Noble   /  IndieBound / Smashwords

And read reviews of Vector here: Goodreads  /  Sharon Buchbinder’s Reviews / Cynthia Robertson’s Reviews / Shoot Your Eye Out Publisher Review

New Books: Global Chorus Offers Essays of Hope

NYimageNYCCentralParkIn the new book Global Chorus, 365 different essays – including one of mine – answer the question: Do we have hope?

How would you answer?

The chorus comes from scientists, authors, artists, humanitarians, political, and spiritual leaders responding to editor Todd MacLean’s not-so-simple, and surprising query.

He asked each of us to send him one page on our thoughts about the future. As editor, he collected responses from Jane Goodall, David Suzuki and hundreds of contributors in the new book, now published by Rocky Mountain Books in Canada. You can find the book here.

The Global Chorus questions:

  • Do you think that humanity can find a way past the current global environmental and social crises?
  • Will we be able to create the conditions necessary for our own survival, as well as that of other species on the planet?
  • What would these conditions look like?
  • Do we have hope, and can we do it?

Each of the 365 entries are dated, giving one inspiration for each day of the new year. Mine appears on October 2, and is excerpted from the book here:

“When I think about our future as a species, I always look back at our history for perspective. The stone age must have seemed like all there was for a while, and then the bronze age too. And at times, the fossil fuel age we are in feels so entrenched that it is something we cannot change, but of course, it will pass, as all other ages have. Our future will shine with the realization of the promises of solar and wind generated energy; that future is blossoming even now. Alternatives to coal, oil and gas are all around us above ground and will sustain our needs with clean renewable energy. Our future is as bright as the sun.

“Looking into our future as a species I see a time when life is respected universally, with the rights of people and animals protected around the world. People will continue to turn away from the barbaric practices of the past, embracing the path of vegetarian and vegan diets for a healthier planet. As the demands for animal products fade, the animals, birds and fish will regain a place of honour in the world of Homo sapiens. Their rights will be respected as ours are. We will survive to see a peaceful and natural world, rich in variety.

“I have hope, and we have hope, because of the growing awareness among young people who can reach beyond borders as they learn about their world. The Internet and social medial continue to connect us to each other in ways that defy nationalism and push us toward a more peaceful planet.”

Jennifer J. Brown, PhD, author, mother, scientist, in Global Chorus.

Proceeds from sales of Global Chorus go to The Jane Goodall Institute, The David Suzuki Foundation and the Canadian Red Cross.

Where to Find the Book

The first Global Chorus printing sold out quickly, with a new printing planned and ecopies available for Kindle readers.

Check here to find a source for Global Chorus near you.

Why not join the chorus with your answer, and a review on the book retailer site or social media: Do we have hope?

A Voice for Change

To raise my voice in a global chorus for environmental change, I picked up my pen. I wrote the novel Brindle 24, as a way to dissect what fossil fuel extraction from the earth does to all living things, plants, animals, and people. The story looks at the effects of toxic chemicals from fracking through the eyes of a student, a pregnant mother, a veteran, a scientist, and a policeman.

Where to Find My Books

You can find Brindle 24, the last day in the life of a town, in print and ebook editions where most books are sold, including these sources:  IndieBound   /   Amazon   /   Kindle   /   Barnes & Noble   /   Nook Book   /   iBook   /   Smashwords

After the Layoff: a Novella

“I am free and that is why I am lost.”– Franz Kafka

The Doctor's Dreams, BrooklynFor someone who has become a slave to their work, unemployment is a strange kind of freedom.

In the second novella of my new fiction book, The Doctor’s Dreams, the character Eve Wissen feels like a decapitated, single head of household after a surprise layoff at work.

A workaholic scientist adrift in New York City, she adds up the unemployment facts. Numbers are no longer her friends. Her sudden freedom thrusts her into a void where she scrambles to reinvent meaning for her life.

Here’s an excerpt from the story, from when Eve leaves her office for the last time.

Book Excerpt

After the Layoff, in The Doctor’s Dreams, by J.J.Brown, 2014

Excerpt:

On a good day, numbers tell a story, while another day numbers smack you down flat. And today was not a good day. It was a transition day. Today she was on the 23rd floor of an office building in Manhattan, but tomorrow she wouldn’t be. She’d be on the first floor of a small apartment building in Brooklyn. She’d be home.

Walking slowly, her shoes making no sound on the carpet, Eve noticed the open office space was unusually quiet. It smelled faintly of coffee. Freshly brewed coffee gave off over 800 aromatic compounds that were detected by cells lining her nose. It always had triggered something generally positive in her brain.

Eve recognized familiar perfumes too, ones that were tied to fond memories. She passed by the friends she had worked with, eaten with, given wedding presents and holiday cards to for years—but she forced herself not to look at anyone. She felt their eyes drift lightly over her and then move away. No one wanted to be the next in line to be axed. They were watching something like a movie of her, not the real her, the friend. She suddenly felt completely naked. She imagined her skin and eyes were radiating with the words she didn’t have to say, “They let me go, I’m leaving”. In the moment, she couldn’t bring herself to say goodbye, to acknowledge that this part of their lives together was over. In her confusion, she forgot to take the carved wooden bird from her desk. As she picked up her jacket, her skin pricked with the heat of embarrassment. Her sympathetic nervous system was sending signals to open the tips of the blood vessels in her skin. The chemical processes of stress.

“They let me go, they let me go, they let me go,” she thought. But no. “Let” sounded as if this were something she had wanted all along, and now the company finally allowed her to do it. Nothing could have been further from the truth! This was not a consensual act. They came to no agreement. She did not want to go. Eve habitually loved the things she did, whatever they were. It was a practice, purposeful, useful. Naturally then, she had loved her job. She always had tried to find a way to make even the most mundane task enjoyable and usually, she could. Sometimes she set up timed challenges along the way, as if her work were a chemistry lab experiment. This experiment was over now.

At the elevator she asked the manager if he was staying with the company, himself. He was.

“Good luck,” she said, and meant it.

The elevator doors clicked closed behind Eve. This was final. The trip down felt like a long fall. As she got out on the ground floor and exited the building through the wide-open lobby, her shoes sounded odd to her. The heels tapped on the marble floor like an animal’s nails or a bird’s claws. She thought about how this was the last time she would walk across that lobby and through those particular glass revolving doors.

She stood still in the chilly spring air just outside the building. She listened to the familiar noises of street traffic. A normal busy day, taxi drivers were still working. Bus drivers were, too. Eve wasn’t.

She wondered how her namesake felt, ejected from the Garden of Eden. Startled, cold, naked, and maybe also vaguely guilty, she imagined. What had she done wrong? No act, no omission came to mind.

“It had nothing to do with you,” the human resources rep had said.

Eve remembered her premonition from earlier in the morning and shuddered. She thought about the accidental death on the train tracks. Now that was bad news, on the gradient from good, toward neutral, and then bad. She felt colder just thinking about it. That was tragic. Her news about being laid-off was only bad luck. A lay-off was not even unusual. So many companies had let workers go this year.

She thought of the statistics that came out from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, CDC. Suicides were trending upwards now, at 40 percent higher in 2010 than they had been in 2000, for middle-aged people. Guns, hangings, drug overdoses—by 2013 suicide had become the tenth leading cause of death for people in Eve’s age group.
Traffic whizzed by as she went through the numbers in her head.

She recalled that suicides had now reached over 38,000 a year in the US. So many lives ended. The recession and the mortgage crisis did it, analysts wrote. But could they really know? The true motives for suicide will always be secrets.

******

You can find After the Layoff in the collection, The Doctor’s Dreams, in print and ebook editions most places where books are sold.

In print here:   Amazon  /   Barnes & Noble   /  Powells  /  IndieBound

If you’re an ebook reader, find it here:   Kindle   /  Nook  /   iTunes

If you enjoy the story, won’t you leave me a review at your favorite book retailer site?

TheDoctorsDreamsJJBrown (1)

Secret Dreams of a Doctor

TheDoctorsDreamsJJBrown (1)Dreams are the exclusive property of the dreamer.

But if you found a loved one’s secret dream book, might you be tempted to read it? In my newest book, The Doctor’s Dreams, a lonely man faces this decision while killing time, home alone.

Doctor Marsha Arzt has mysteriously gone missing somewhere between Manhattan and Brooklyn. Just after midnight, while looking for clues, her brother Frank discovers she kept a hand-written dream diary. It unnerves him, but he can’t stop reading, under the pretext of typing up the dream book to help her organize.

Her nightmares seem to predict a future he isn’t willing or able to face, and certainly not alone in the wee hours of the morning.

Here’s an excerpt from the story, when he starts typing up the third of her dreams in a macabre series.

Excerpt from: The Doctor’s Dreams, by J.J.Brown, 2014

December 23. I dreamt of surgery.
The last thing I saw on the way home from work on the M line was an advertisement on the walls of the train car. It was under a glossy, dark blue photo. The ad copy read, ‘Because it’s your other 9 to 5’. I had no idea what that meant. Sleep, maybe. Sleep is my other nine to five, though it is somewhat shorter, more like twelve to six on days when I am not on-call at the hospital. When I am on-call, I have only an hour here, an hour there to sleep.

The setting sun reflected along the surface of the East River between Manhattan and Brooklyn. The water looked like a stream of pure gold when I closed my eyes. By the time I woke up it was dusk. The train was no longer crowded and I was deep in Brooklyn, well past my stop. I must have fallen asleep somewhere on the Williamsburg Bridge crossing. I imagine it was around six in the evening. When I realized where I was, I got off at the next stop and transferred to the train going the opposite direction, to retrace my path.

I remembered the dream and wrote it down on the way back home. It went like this:
“What about your other nine to five?” A disembodied voice asked me as I slept. “Have you been preparing?”
“For what?” I asked.
“What is to come,” the voice answered.
“When do I have time to prepare?”
“The other nine to five, that is your time. I gave you more than 12,000 nights in these thirty-five years to prepare, countless hours and more than a million dreams. What have you done with these hours? What have you done with these dreams?”
I could not answer.
“Are you ready? Have you prepared for the end?”

Frank froze. He hadn’t thought of preparing for the end—did anyone, he wondered?

*****

Throughout the novella, Frank goes progressively deeper into a state of confusion as he types out his sister Marsha’s nightmares. What they reveal about her emotional experience working as a doctor, convinces him that the two of them need to make a change.

The Doctor’s Dreams is now available in print and ebook editions.

Find it in print here:   Amazon  /   Barnes & Noble   /  Powells

If you’re an ebook reader, find it here:   Kindle   /  Nook  /   iTunes

If you enjoy the stories, please leave me a review at your favorite book retailer site.