I got my very first flu shot on 12/3/2013. Up until now I have depended on my coworkers being vaccinated and protecting me against the virus. Very recently I have had Tamiflu and at the times I have used it thought that it worked very well. I have asked repeatedly about getting the shot, including the Infectious Disease consultants who promoted the mass immunization of my fellow employees. Over the years I have asked about 5 of them this question and they all said the same thing: "You can never take this flu vaccine." My history was: "In 1975 I received two doses of anti-rabies duck embryo vaccine and had two episodes of anaphylaxis". I was very interested in the new vaccine (Flucelvax) for people with egg allergies and when I asked about it, my primary care doc was initially enthusiastic, but then told me I had to be evaluated by Allergy and Immunology in order to get it. That lead to a comprehensive evaluation that was nearly three hours long.
After the check in and doing some asthma tests, I met the Allergist. He was about my age and the first thing I noticed was that he was gathering a history in nearly the same way I do. It was detailed and comprehensive. Not just the buzz words but what actually happened right down to what that duck embryo vaccine looked like in the syringe. It was oily and it had particles in it. Even in those days I was skeptical of the idea that all Peace Corps volunteers going into a specific country needed to take it. There were about 50 of us and in the two years of service, I don't recall hearing that anyone was bitten by an animal. The first time I got it, I broke out in hives and had a rash. My friends took me down to a local Kenyan hospital where they gave me Polaramine (dexchlorpheniramine) and epinephrine. When I got the second injection, I got intense abdominal cramping, hives, swelling of the face and lips, wheezing and lightheadedness. At that point they gave me Benadryl (diphenhydramine) and epinephrine. Even though I can recall the antihistamine they were using in Kenya at the time, I can't recall why they gave me the second shot. The Allergist wanted all of these details and more, like when was the first time anything like this happened.
That was 50 years ago. The anchor point was the JFK assassination. The day before his funeral I shot myself in the left eye with a BB gun and developed a hyphema. I was hospitalized for a week and the hemorrhaging resolved completely. In the follow up, I was in the ophthalmologist's office next to a fish tank. My face started to swell of to the point that my eyes were swollen shut and my lips were extended. I developed hives over much of my body. I started to wheeze. They moved me into a different room and talked with my mother who told me later that the diagnosis was "psychosomatic reaction". Apparently the stress of not losing an eye or my vision was felt to be a more likely etiology than a moldy fish tank. For the next 10 years or so, I start to wheeze when mowing the lawn. I would get up in the middle of the night with hives or wheezing and drank Diet Pepsi until it went away and I could go back to sleep. At some point one of the primary care docs in town gave me an epinephrine based inhaler. I didn't see my first real allergist until I was about 25, after the Peace Corps and working at my first job cloning evergreen trees.
The skin testing began at that point. 96 patch tests up and down my back, all of them very positive. I was given a long list of what to avoid and it was basically unavoidable. I began a long series of immunotherapy injections, but gave up when they did not seem to do anything. I remembered taking TheoDur the entire time I was in medical school and doing a rotation in Allergy and Immunology. I gave a presentation about what was known about anaphylaxis at the time and at the end, one of the allergists seriously questioned me about why I was going into psychiatry rather than internal medicine. During residency, I took my first course of prednisone for a flare up of asthma after a viral infection. Since then, it has been random episodes of spontaneous anaphylaxis, corticosteroid inhalers and trying to minimize my exposure to them when possible, and using antihistamines and an Epi-Pen when the episodes of anaphylaxis seem particularly bad (that is infrequent). The Allergist recorded this 50 year history of mostly inadequate treatment.
At the same time, I was marking where I would be in an interview with a person who had lifelong depression and anxiety. Attempting to reconstruct the episodes of mood disorder and what the symptoms were. Attempting to correlate it with major life events. Attempting to determine in retrospect the exact nature of the symptoms and likely etiologies at the time. Asking myself if the treatments received were appropriate or what it suggested. Thinking about the resilience or vulnerabilities of the person I was talking with. It is the same process I use in making diagnoses and treatment plans. Were there differences? Of course and the most noticeable were the objective measures for assessing asthma. I did the usual assessments of FEV1.0 before and after bronchodilators. There was also a new assessment of alveolar nitric oxide (NO) as a measure of asthma control. It would be extremely useful to have tests like that to objectively measure the distress, anxiety, or depression levels of the person sitting in front of me, especially if it involved something as simple as blowing into a tube.
But the most interesting part was that in the end, the Allergist addressed the question about whether I could take an egg cultured influenza vaccine by carefully synthesizing the data and correctly answering the question. He did not need a test of any sort to answer the question. He took a meticulous 50 year history of a guy with life-long allergies including asthma and anaphylaxis and correctly concluded that I could be given the shot, even though all of the experts with the same level of training had come to the opposite conclusion. I got the shot, sat in the clinic for 30 minutes. The information sheet said that delayed reactions for "up to several hours" could occur. He told me that would not happen and I went home. That was almost exactly 24 hours ago.
The lesson here is one that I have seen time and time again in the field of medicine. The information content in the field is vast. There may be only a certain physician or specialty capable of answering that question. There is no better example than me getting a flu shot, but it also happens daily in the people I see who have had psychiatric disorders for the same length of time or less than I have been dealing with allergies and asthma. No two people with asthma or depression are alike. Meticulous history taking and pattern matching can get to the correct answer. Suggestions that we can treat a population of people all in the same way will not.
People are biologically complex and as physicians we should celebrate that. That also involves getting them to the person who can correctly answer their questions.
George Dawson, MD, DFAPA