The Common Good
January 2012

Do Superheroes Get the Flu?

by Ed Spivey Jr. | January 2012

At first, I thought I had the flu because I didn't get a flu shot this year and naturally had to be punished by the medical community.

MY DREAM OF being the vanguard of a new super race of elderly came to an end recently when I spent a week in bed with bronchitis.

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I had been preparing for my new role by carefully watching instructive documentaries on two of our greatest citizens, Captain America, a hero whose muscles are swollen with patriotism, and the Green Lantern, a man empowered by a secret alien force that controls the universe, like the Koch brothers, only with better special effects. These two superheroes are using their powers to fight evil, such as job-killing regulations that are stifling American business innovation.

Speaking of which, I’ve been thinking of inventing a disposable shirt sleeve for people who, like me, have recently spent the last month coughing into their elbows. This is the doctor-recommended technique for controlling your germs (as opposed to my preferred method of coughing out the window of a speeding car, although you really have to get the angle right). But after a while, your target sleeve starts developing its own ecosystem, supporting life forms more typical of, say, a rainforest. I didn’t mind the moss, and the ferns were kind of pretty, but when an equatorial lemur started crawling up my shoulder I thought it might be time to change sweaters. But why not slip on a new disposable arm sleeve instead, I asked myself entrepreneurially. Unfortunately, since I’m not a rich job creator, I couldn’t move forward with the idea. Plus, my friends told me it was gross.

AT FIRST, I thought I had the flu, because I didn’t get a flu shot this year and naturally had to be punished by the medical community. Doctors are not happy when you don’t get your flu shot because, in their minds, you’ve been warned. After all, every elevator and hallway at my HMO has posters promoting flu shots, and the waiting room TVs have videos that repeatedly promote new experimental ideas such as “taking care of yourself.” But my hesitancy has always been because previous flu shots gave me a mild case of the flu. This has always confused me.

Polio vaccines, after all, don’t give you a mild case of polio. You don’t get a touch of tetanus when you get that shot. Immunization for rubella? “Well, you may experience some mild symptoms, but the blindness should be temporary.” Do you understand where I’m going with this? Our president says that perfection should not be the enemy of the good, but I don’t think it’s too much to ask of flu shots that they don’t make you sick. (Our president has his own problems, of course, such as deciding where one-term presidents get their flu shots and what to say to the nurse who will be VERY disappointed in him if he doesn’t.)

Actually, the latest studies show that flu shots are only effective 60 percent of the time. That sounds pretty close to 50-50 to me, and they say you only have a 30 percent chance of getting the flu if you don’t get the shot. So I’m doing the math here, and what I come up with is, uhm, 12.

The good news is, when I first got sick the doctor only used the phrase “people your age” twice, which I thought was nice of him.

I anticipated more of this kind of talk, since when he walked in he looked to be the age of somebody who should be being dropped off at soccer practice by his mom. I had expected the reassuring sight of a genial, silver-haired practition-er much older and wiser than me, the kind of doctor that, given contemporary actuarial tables for my generation, isn’t alive any more.

This was only the latest indignity of aging. The other day I noticed that a spouse—who shall remain nameless—had recently consolidated our family records system, creating a new folder labeled “Ed’s Medical/Also Cats.” I found this troubling at first, but then remembered that our veterinarian never once nagged me about the flu. Which reminds me: I need to have him check out the life forms living in my sleeve. They might need shots.

Ed Spivey Jr. is art director of Sojourners.

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