March 16 represents a milestone for my family and I, as it will be the fifth anniversary of that dreadful day in 2015 when we learned that our youngest daughter, Katherine, had been diagnosed with leukemia.
It was as if the ground had opened up underneath us, and almost instantly, we found ourselves stumbling, terrified, through a world about which we knew nothing.
What we quickly learned, though, is that decades of extensive medical research meant that Katherine’s cancer doctors knew exactly what do to, their protocols and procedures honed thorough exhaustive scientific trials conducted in research centers all over the world. Katherine began her cancer treatments that very next day and before the end of that year, after months of intense treatment, she was cancer free.
Science saved her life. She’ll be graduating from high school this spring and heading off to college this fall, intent on a scientific career of her own.
Longtime readers of the Bangor Daily News may remember the paper’s 2015 story about Katherine, describing how she used a robot to attend school remotely both during her cancer treatment and for several months after it was completed. The robot was necessary because the treatments used to fight her cancer compromised Katherine’s immune system, making it unsafe for her to attend school.
Science, this time in the form of “Bob” the robot, saved her life once again. The threat, though, was a very different one. The danger at that point was simply other people — her friends, neighbors and even her family members — who could expose her to illnesses for which she no longer had any natural defense.
As a family, we have been reflecting on Katherine’s experience as we confront the Question 1 ballot initiative, which will go before voters at the March 3 election. If approved, Question 1 would roll back protections for children like Katherine, whose medical conditions leave them vulnerable to the vaccine-preventable illnesses that could be carried by their classmates and friends.
The supporters of Question 1 have launched a disingenuous campaign to convince voters that a “yes” vote strikes some kind of blow against the big pharmaceutical companies, but I think we can all agree that “Big Pharma” will be just fine no matter what happens with Question 1.
The same cannot be said of Maine’s most vulnerable children, however, for it is they who are at risk if Question 1 passes. They will face increased danger from their non-immunized classmates and their families will need to decide each day whether sending their children to school is worth the risk.
Our schools work tirelessly to keep their students safe. This is why we have schoolchildren participate in fire drills and why we transport them to and from school in bright yellow buses with flashing lights. It is also why we have long required schoolchildren to be immunized, a mandate that has saved countless children from life-threatening illnesses.
It is also the reason that when Katherine’s immune system had recovered, we made sure to update all of her immunizations. Not just for her sake, but for the safety and well-being of her fellow students.
Make no mistake, Question 1 seeks to weaken the legal protections that keep our most vulnerable children — children like Katherine — safe in school. A “no” vote on Question 1 is a vote to protect those children and to ensure that our schools remain a place where all of Maine’s kids can learn and grow in safety.
Stephen Bowen of Rockport is a former commissioner of the Maine Department of Education.