A Shot In The Arm For RA

Several years ago, my rheumatologist told me to get a pneumonia shot.  I had never gotten one before.  Typically only the elderly are supposed to get them, but it is also recommended if you have immune system problems.

It seemed like no big deal.  And who really wants to die from pneumonia, if it can be avoided?

For some reason, my rheumatologist’s office couldn’t give it to me, so I went to the student health center.  When the nurse went to give me the shot, she swabbed my arm very low, and I mentioned that I felt like it was a strange place to give an injection.  She reassured me that, that is how the pneumovax is given.

This was a Friday afternoon.  The next day, I woke up with a quarter-size welt on my arm.  As the day progressed, I felt like I had the flu and had significant joint pain.  On Sunday, I woke up and the welt on my arm was the size of a fist.

In talking with one of my blogger friends, she suggested that what was happening was not normal.  So I called the doctor on-call at the student health center.  When he got on the phone to talk to me, he hadn’t even bothered to look at my chart.  He didn’t believe that I had, had a pneumovax, and then he asked me why I would have gotten one.  He told me that he thought I was fine and that I should come in on Monday if things hadn’t improved.  I then called the rheumatologist on-call at the hospital where my rheumatologist was.  The doctor got back to me, and while she had a heavy accent, I understood her direction to go to the emergency room.

I called a cab and went to the emergency room by myself.  I assumed I would be there for a few hours, get some medication, and leave.  How wrong I was.

As Sunday progressed, things got worse.  I had a fever, and when all was said and done, the infection had spread, and completely engulfed my arm, from my elbow to my shoulder.  The antibiotics the doctors gave me weren’t working, so I was admitted to the hospital.  The doctors told me that they had never seen a reaction from a vaccine like that before, and this was a major teaching hospital.

I was diagnosed with cellulitis, which is an infection of the skin and tissue, which can be life-threatening if not taken care of in a timely manner.

They would never say for sure, but it seemed that the consensus was that I had a vaccine reaction from a vaccine that had been administered incorrectly.  I don’t think they wanted to totally throw the student health center under the bus.  But they did confirm that if I would have waited until Monday, I may have lost the arm, or possibly, died.

Pneumonia shots are given every five years.  I am due for mine this year, but I don’t think I’ll be getting one again, now, or ever.

However, every year, I do get a flu shot.  And I got one last week while I was at my new primary care doctor’s office.  That was Friday, and I am totally fine.  While the flu shot does tend to knock me out a bit that day, otherwise I seem fine.

But because of the pneumovax debacle, every year, I dread getting a flu shot or a shot of any kind, for that matter.

But I have always been in situations where it makes sense to have a flu shot.  The last six years, I was teaching undergraduates, so I was basically in a cesspool.  And now, living in New York, I’m around mass amounts of people on public transportation.

Obviously, you need to talk to your doctor about what is right for you.  I am not knocking pneumonia shots, just sharing a story of what can happen when vaccines are administered incorrectly, specifically to chronically ill people.  There’s no telling that if I hadn’t been immune-suppressed, whether I would have ended up with such a bad infection, and in the hospital for several days.  But administered correctly, vaccines can be highly affective.  Knock on wood, I have been flu-less for the past several years.  And with my crapped out immune system, I credit that more to the flu shot than to my own dumb luck.

One thing to definitely make sure of, though, is that you are getting an inactivated, non-live vaccine.  People with autoimmune diseases are typically discouraged from getting live vaccines.  And this goes for the people around you, too. 

This is a picture of my arm right before I went to the hospital. In the beginning, the infection was only the size of a quarter. At its worst, it engulfed my entire arm, from my shoulder to my elbow.

A few years ago, my sister, who doesn’t like shots, wanted to get the FluMist, and she was asked by the person administering it if she was close to anyone with immune system problems.  When she told them she was, they suggested that she not get it because the mist – which is sprayed in the nose rather than injected in the arm – can, in rare cases, be spread to others, especially those with weakened immune systems.

Again, talk to your doctor about this and any other type of medical intervention.

For me, having the flu shot is more than worth it.  Such a simple thing for a little peace of mind, and hopefully, health.

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