The vaccine whisperers: Quebec counsellors gently engage new parents before their doubts harden into certainty

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Marie-Hélène Étienne-Rousseau with her son Tobie. Photo: Adèle Foglia for Stat

(Eric Boodman/ Stat) SHERBROOKE, Québec — As a mother, Marie-Hélène Étienne-Rousseau wasn’t dead-set against vaccination, in a mind’s-made-up, won’t-even-talk-about-it sort of way. But she was vociferous enough to have the nurses worried. Again and again, she’d explain that she’d read plenty online. That she’d heard frightening stories about these shots. That she wasn’t convinced they were good for her kids.

And protecting her kids was at the forefront of Étienne-Rousseau’s mind. How could it not be? She was 26. Her youngest lay in an Isolette in the neonatal intensive care unit, a mask over his nose to help him breathe. Anyone walking by could watch the delicate fluttering of his heart and lungs, visible in a rainbow of squiggles on a bedside screen. His name was Tobie.

He’d arrived early, at only 28 weeks: a tiny, 2-pound creature, the size of one soda can stacked on another. He was her fourth child in four years. She’d had preemies before — her son Samuel at 34 weeks, her daughter Jessica at 35 — so she wasn’t as panicked as she might have been. Still, she’d cried when she went into labor with Tobie, wondering if the doctors could save him. “I knew a thing or two about really small babies,” she said, “but 28 weeks! That might have consequences, I told myself; parts of him might not be fully formed. Will he be able to see? Will he be deaf?” (…)

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