Anne Marie Schubert, district attorney of Sacramento, has seen the worst of humanity in her long career as a prosecutor.
She made her reputation putting child molesters in prison and using DNA evidence to track down and convict rapists. She has shown great empathy for families whose loved ones were brutally murdered by men now on California’s death row.
Through it all, Schubert, 53, never was one to cry. She refused to be shaken by her proximity to horror and tragedy, and maintained an air of dispassionate professionalism out of respect for those who were suffering.
But one year ago, Schubert spent the day crying, and she cried for many days after that. The incident that caused her tears made her feel out of control in a way she never had felt before. Anger consumed her, overtaking her usual logical mindset.
It was Sept. 12, 2016 – a typical work day. Schubert faced a full schedule of meetings as soon as she dropped her two boys off at school. But first, she needed to take her older son in for a quick doctor’s appointment.
Not long after they arrived at the doctor’s office, her 12-year-old son was unconscious and unresponsive on the floor, and Schubert was screaming at nurses and other hospital attendants for help.
One moment, she said, he was standing there. Then he passed out, tumbling backward without using his hands to break his fall. “His head slammed full force onto the floor, which was like concrete,” Schubert said. “For a moment, I thought he was dead.”
He wasn’t dead, but within an hour, Schubert and her family would learn that her son suffered a severe skull fracture from the fall. And within weeks, they would learn something even more horrifying: The boy now was deaf in his right ear because of the trauma he experienced when his head hit the ground.
The details of her son’s fall continue to haunt Schubert. “At that time, my son never called me Mommy,” she said. “But (when he came to) he was crying, ‘Mommy! Mommy! I want to go home.’”
“I don’t cry a lot, but I cried a lot over this one,” she said.
Schubert prefers not to identify her son by name because he is still distraught a year later. The only reason they had gone to the doctor in the first place was because the boy had a backache.
“We had gone up to the mountains to go hiking and he had tripped,” Schubert said. “He wanted to go to the doctor in the morning, even though he had school, because (he said) it hurt really, really bad. ... I thought he had pulled a muscle.”
While at the doctor’s office at Kaiser Permanente in Elk Grove, Schubert was informed that her son was due for his vaccination for human papillomavirus, which is given to boys and girls at age 11 or 12.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the HPV vaccine “is very safe.” It helps prevent HPV infections, which usually are transmitted sexually and can cause genital warts or lead to various forms of cancer in some people if left untreated.
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Nearly all sexually active Americans will get an HPV infection at least once in their lifetime, according to the CDC . In most cases, HPV infections – there are 40 to 50 types – cause no symptoms and disappear on their own. However, an estimated 30,700 HPV-related cancers are diagnosed each year in the U.S, and these cases could be prevented by the HPV vaccine, health officials say.
Richard Pan, the Elk Grove State Senator, physician and vaccine advocate, said some parents think administering the HPV vaccination is tantamount to giving kids a free pass to have sex. So they object on moral grounds, which Pan finds preposterous. “It’s not about sex,” he said. “It’s about cancer.”
It’s advised to vaccinate kids for HPV before they reach puberty and before they become sexually active. But the HPV vaccine, like many vaccines, can cause short-term side effects. Pan said parents are supposed to be given information sheets from the CDC detailing what can occur: swelling, fever, headaches – and fainting.
“I’ve seen some patients faint while we are administering vaccinations,” Pan said. “I’ve seen some parents faint while we’re administering the vaccines to their children.”
The key, he said, is that kids should be monitored for 10 to 15 minutes after being vaccinated. They should be seated or lying down initially after the shot. Health care professionals should be prepared for all responses, including fainting.
Herein lies the crux of the case Schubert has said she is pursuing for her son. Schubert said she was not informed of the possible side effects of the vaccine. She said her son was not observed after the shot. They soon left to have an X-ray taken at another Kaiser facility close by in Elk Grove, where he collapsed.
Schubert said it’s her understanding that Kaiser Permanente requires all disputes of this nature be settled in arbitration, a condition patients must accept before treatment. Schubert said she also will file a petition with a federal court in Washington D.C., where a special magistrate administers settlements from a federal vaccination fund created by Congress.
Kaiser declined to comment on the specifics of Schubert’s claims.
The National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program was created decades ago, after lawsuits against vaccination companies and health care organizations threatened to bring about vaccine shortages and reduce vaccination rates. Anyone who received a covered vaccination and believes he or she was injured as a result can file a petition.
Between 2001 and 2010, the United States saw big declines in the number of cases of vaccine-preventable diseases. Because of this, vaccines are one of the top public health achievements of the decade.
Schubert has retained a local lawyer to pursue medical malpractice arbitration with Kaiser in Sacramento. And she has retained a lawyer on the East Coast who will argue for a settlement from the federal program.
The cases will run on parallel tracks. They will seek judgments by arguing the vaccination caused Schubert’s son to faint and suffer a permanent disability. In the malpractice arbitration, the lawyers will argue that Schubert was not warned about the possible side effects of the vaccine, that her son was not monitored properly and that Kaiser attendants were not prepared when her son fainted.
“This shouldn’t have happened, and the long term consequence is a permanent disability,” Schubert said. “He’s never going to be able to listen to music the same way again. He has constant ringing in his ears. When he walks down the street, he might not be able to hear a car coming.”
Schubert said the saddest day for her in the past year was not when her son was injured. It was the day he asked a specialist if he would regain hearing in his right ear.
“The doctor told him it would be (a) one in a million (chance),” she said. “It was so sad. My son is very angry and rightly so. He’s a child, and he’s trying to understand his place in the world after losing something so important through no fault of his own.”
Pan said he reached out to Schubert after he heard about what had happened to her son. “This is very unfortunate, and I’m very sorry for what happened,” Pan said.
Schubert said she appreciated the gesture. “I’ve spent my life dealing with life-altering moments that other people suffered. This was a life-altering thing for me, for my son, for my family.”