On April 22, 2006, Kelly Lacek looked around her dinner table and smiled: Dan, her husband of thirteen years, was there, along with the coupleâ€™s three children, Ashley, Stephen, and Matthew. Kellyâ€™s parents had also come over: There was a father-daughter dance at the local church that evening, and Kelly and her dad were double-dating with Dan and Ashley. As the four of them were getting ready to leave, Kelly couldnâ€™t resist needling her mother. â€œYouâ€™re stuck with the boys,â€ she said. â€œBut donâ€™t worryâ€"we wonâ€™t be out too late.â€ She kissed Stephen goodbye, and then bent down to say good night to Matthew. He was three years old, and Kelly marveled at how quickly he was growing up: It seemed as if it was only moments ago that heâ€™d been an infant, and now he was already being toilet-trained. (Dan and Kelly both agreed that it was adorable how proudly he announced that he had to go to the bathroom.)
For a brief moment, Kelly says, she wondered if Matthew was okayâ€"he seemed a little out of sorts, and earlier that afternoon, heâ€™d complained of a sore throatâ€"but then she figured heâ€™d probably just tired himself out wrestling with his older brother.
Kelly and Dan returned home that night around eight oâ€™clock. Theyâ€™d barely walked in the door when Kellyâ€™s mother rushed over: â€œItâ€™s Matthew,â€ she said. â€œHeâ€™s running a feverâ€"and his breathing seems a little shallow.â€ The Laceks realized right away that something was seriously wrong. â€œHe was just sort of hunched over,â€ Kelly says. â€œWe didnâ€™t know what to do.â€ Since there was no way to get in touch with Matthewâ€™s doctor, they decided to make the ten-minute drive from their home in Monroeville, about fifteen miles east of Pittsburgh, to the Forbes Regional Campus of the Western Pennsylvania Hospital.
When the Laceks arrived at the emergency room, the attending physician told them there was nothing to worry about. In all likelihood, he said, Matthew had a case of strep throat. Worst-case scenario, it was asthma; regardless, theyâ€™d be home in no time. Two hours later, they were feeling much less assured: Matthewâ€™s fever was still rising, and when a doctor tried to swab his throat, he began to choke. By eleven p.m. Matthewâ€™s temperature had risen to 104 degrees and his breathing seemed to be growing shallower by the minute.
It was around that time that a doctor the Laceks hadnâ€™t met before walked over. He was olderâ€"probably in his sixties, Kelly thoughtâ€"and as soon as he saw Matthew, he began to suck nervously on his teeth. He turned to the Laceks: Had Matthew received all his shots? Actually, Kelly said, he hadnâ€™t. Matthew had been born in March 2003, several years after rumors of a connection between autism and vaccines had begun to gain traction in suburban enclaves around the country. That May, Kellyâ€™s chiropractor warned her about the dangers of vaccines. â€œHe asked if we were going to get [Matthew] vaccinated and I said yes,â€ Kelly says. â€œAnd then he told me about mercury. He said, â€˜Thereâ€™s mercury in there.â€™ â€ Kelly had already heard rumors that the combined measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine was dangerous, but this was something new. â€œHe was really vocal about it causing autism. He said there was this big report over in Europe and blah blah blah. And I thought, Well, Iâ€™m surrounded by people who have autistic children. What if this happened to Matthew?â€ If Kelly was unconvinced, the chiropractor said, she should make Matthewâ€™s pediatrician prove to her that the vaccines Matthew was scheduled to receive were one hundred percent safe.
â€œSo thatâ€™s what I did,â€ Kelly says. â€œI asked my doctor if she could give me a label that says thereâ€™s no mercury and she said, â€˜No.â€™ She said she wouldnâ€™t give it to me.â€ It was as if, Kelly says, her pediatrician was hiding something. The doctor tried to tell Kelly that she would be putting Matthew at serious risk by not immunizing him, but, Kelly says, â€œI donâ€™t think I heard anything else she mi