“Men in Black” was flickering on the screen, and Laura Cossolotto and her husband were enjoying a rare night at the movies in their home town of Centerville, Iowa, when her brother-in-law rushed into the darkened theater.
The couple’s third child, 6-month-old Michaela, had just suffered a serious seizure and was at a nearby hospital. As Cossolotto raced to be with the baby, she immediately remembered that Michaela had been running a fever after receiving a vaccine against diphtheria, pertussis and tetanus (DPT) three days earlier. “I thought the shot must have something to do with it,” Cossolotto recalled. “I had three kids, and nothing like this had ever happened, so what else could it have been?”
(Laura Cossolotto,/LAURA COSSOLOTTO,) - Much improved, Michaela Cossolotto is now in high school.
At the hospital, doctors reassured her that Michaela had suffered a febrile seizure, a frightening and usually harmless event they said was unlikely to recur. As a precaution, the baby was admitted for observation. Hours later, after doctors had trouble controlling a second, more severe seizure, the infant was whisked by helicopter to a larger hospital in Des Moines, 100 miles north.
That night in July 1997 marked the beginning of a 10 1
2-year ordeal, as more than a dozen specialists in four states tried without success to find an underlying cause for Michaela’s frequent, intractable seizures — and a treatment that would control them before they caused irreparable brain damage or death.
For years Cossolotto held the DPT shot responsible for Michaela’s problems, joining legions of parents who have blamed various ingredients in pediatric vaccines for triggering serious medical and developmental ills, most notably autism. Since the early 1980s these allegations, based on discredited theoriesand more recently on an influential British study that last year was deemed an “elaborate fraud,” have flourished, largely because of their enduring popularity on the Internet. As a consequence, fearful parents have refused to immunize their children, resulting in outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases, including measles and whooping cough.
Cossolotto, who spent hours online desperately seeking answers, found the vaccine hypothesis persuasive, particularly after doctors failed to offer another explanation. The belated discovery of what was wrong with her daughter would upend Cossolotto’s long-held views and lead to major improvements in Michaela’s life.
Was it autism?
It was quickly evident that Michaela’s seizures were not just febrile: They occurred when she had no fever, and doctors suspected she had epilepsy. “She would be in her bouncy seat and both arms would just shoot straight up in the air,” Cossolotto recalled. “I knew nothing about epilepsy.”
She soon learned. At times Michaela’s seizures were so severe that doctors had to place her in a drug-induced coma to save her life. Eight times before she was 3, she was helicoptered to Des Moines or Iowa City for emergency treatment. “I remember sitting by her bed in the ICU wondering: Would she wake up? And if she did, would she be a vegetable?” Cossolotto recalled.