Health And Wellness

Most Americans Have No Clue What Immunocompromised Means

Photo: Olga Semenova / Shutterstock
woman wearing face mask

When I was thirteen, my older sister saved my life. Or so she claims.

She administered an eighteenth-century-style chickenpox inoculation. She sat on my head and rubbed her open, weeping, itchy, chickenpox sores all over my arms, legs, and torso. It was a tad cruel.

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“Mom says you have to get chickenpox now, so you don’t get it worse later. I am saving your life!”

Ahhhh, siblings.

I didn’t get chickenpox. (Thanks to modern science, I was later vaccinated when pregnant with my daughter.)

My sister’s inoculation did work on my other siblings. They all broke out in the telltale itchy welts. That was the first time I noticed that something was different with my immune system.

While other people got seasonal coughs and colds, I seemed invincible. When mononucleosis took out half the field hockey team in high school, I wondered why I had drunk from the same water bottle and not gotten sick. And when my roommates in college got influenza, I ran around taking care of them.

“How come you never get sick?” one asked.

I didn’t have an answer.

When I was going through my divorce, the devil finally came to collect. Unfortunately, the devil always takes what you hold most precious. My devil took my health. I was hospitalized for weeks with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).

That is when I first heard the words: autoimmune disease.

An autoimmune disease is when your body destroys your tissue by mistake.

An autoimmune disease is the Don Quixote of diseases. Your immune system basically treats your cells as a monster windmill and attacks indiscriminately. That overreaction can result in a litany of diseases — multiple sclerosis (MS), lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, Guillain-Barre syndrome, type 1 diabetes, and psoriasis, to name a few. (There are many more.)

Autoimmune diseases have been on the rise in the last decade. In a recent study with 14,211 participants, 12 years and older, researchers found antinuclear antibodies (ANA) — a common biomarker of autoimmunity — have increased in the last thirty years. Most alarming, ANA’s tripled in adolescents.

Researchers are not sure why autoimmune markers have increased. It could be more autoimmune diseases are being reported, or it could be something in our environment that is altering our immune response.

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Either way, when you have an autoimmune disease, one way to control your disease is through immunosuppressants — a drug that suppresses the immune response. And once on immunosuppressants, you get slapped with the label that you have probably heard all over the news — immunocompromised. Approximately 2.8% of the population is immunocompromised.

People on immunosuppressants to control their autoimmune disease are one group of the immunocompromised. The other groups are cancer patients, transplant patients, diabetics, and many more.

Currently, a growing eugenics narrative has labeled immunocompromised people as “weak” and “vulnerable.”

Let’s unpack that one.

My resting heart rate averages 50–54 beats. My blood pressure averages around 100/80. My cholesterol would rival a thirteen-year-old. And I am a size 2 with lean muscles and the lung capacity to easily run a mile under 6:30.

Does that sound weak? Hold that thought.

Shortly after New Year’s, I contracted Covid from a family member who never took the pandemic seriously. Within days, my once perfect runner’s lungs were mangled with pneumonia. My fever reached 105. I couldn’t breathe without supplemental oxygen. My blood pressure dropped to 77/55. And yes, I am vaccinated.

There’s a moment of foreboding when you realize you might die. I can only describe it as drowning. I wrote my kids a final letter before I stopped fighting. My body just gave up.

This is called a cytokine storm, and this overzealous immune response is why many immunocompromised people are dying from Covid. During a cytokine storm, the body releases cytokines — small proteins that control the growth and activity of other immune system cells and blood cells. Cytokines are like your immune system’s battle plan. They tell your immune system who is a friend or foe.

Unfortunately, during a cytokine storm…every cell is a foe.

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Thankfully, I survived due to receiving dexamethasone. If I had been hospitalized now, I might not have received that drug. It is in short supply due to the unvaccinated flooding hospitals.

I was lucky. Many immunocompromised people may die this week.

So when you say things like “everyone is going to get Covid” and “It’s just like a cold or mild flu,” well … you sound like a callous prick. Not everyone who gets Covid will survive.

And out of those people, they are not weak. They are some of the strongest people you will ever meet.

So instead of spouting ignorant platitudes and news bites about “Omicron being no big deal,” educate yourself on who is dying from Covid.

It’s not only older folks. It is people who will probably live a longer, healthier life than the very people dismissing our lives as less valuable.

Carlyn Beccia is an author, illustrator, and speaker. Her books have won numerous awards, including the Golden Kite Honor, the International Reading Association's Children's and Young Adult Book Award, and the Cybil Award. You can follow her on Twitter or Medium @CarlynBeccia.

This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.