Guest article by Serese Marotta, Chief Operating Officer, Families Fighting Flu
It’s that time of year again — influenza (flu) season is just around the corner and, as during other years, we don’t have any idea how severe it will be. Unlike the common cold, influenza is a serious and highly contagious disease that tends to develop quickly, especially in children, and can lead to hospitalization or death. Every year in the U.S., approximately 20,000 children under the age of 5 are hospitalized, and on average, 100 children die from infection with influenza or its complications. How do I know this? Because my healthy, 5-year-old son, Joseph, lost his life to H1N1 flu in October 2009. I have always been pro-vaccination and Joseph and his sister got their annual flu vaccinations in September 2009, but H1N1 wasn’t in the vaccine that year. Sadly, the H1N1 vaccine didn’t become available in our community until two weeks after Joseph’s death.
Joseph’s story began innocently enough. He was attending kindergarten in the fall of 2009 and threw up on the school bus. Later that day, Joseph continued to throw up and became increasingly lethargic. Finally, we called our pediatrician who suggested we take Joseph to the local urgent care. Upon arrival, they found Joseph’s blood oxygen level to be very low and immediately transported him to the local children’s hospital. The rapid flu test came back negative and Joseph was eventually diagnosed with pneumonia.
Several days into his hospital stay, the doctors informed us that Joseph’s culture was growing influenza, which was likely H1N1, but not to worry — it was “just the flu” and they’d start him on antiviral medications. Joseph’s condition over the next several days was relatively stable. Various specialists came and went; all of Joseph’s tests appeared normal and we were even discussing his discharge with the doctors. All of that changed on the ninth day of our hospital stay. Joseph’s blood pressure suddenly plummeted, and we were sent back to the ICU. The doctors couldn’t really figure out what was causing Joseph’s low blood pressure, but they didn’t seem overly alarmed. More testing went on throughout the night, while I tried to distract Joseph with cartoons and discussions about his Halloween costume.
The doctor came to me early on the morning of Oct. 18 to say she wanted to put Joseph on a ventilator because his heart and respiration rates were so high and his little body needed a rest. The doctor emphasized it was not a big deal, but Joseph would be unconscious while on the ventilator. I calmly called my husband, who was at home with our young daughter, and asked him to come to the hospital. Minutes later, while I was standing next to Joseph’s bed, he suddenly coded. The next scene was like something on a TV show — doctors and nurses rushing into Joseph’s room. I backed into the hallway so they could do their job, but honestly, I had no idea what was happening. As the minutes ticked away, I began to realize that something was seriously wrong. I continued to wait outside Joseph’s hospital room and finally, the attending doctor came to me, sobbing, and asked me to follow her into Joseph’s room because she needed me to talk to him. Looking back, I think she thought if modern medicine couldn’t save this child, perhaps the sound of his mother’s voice could. I entered Joseph’s room and held his hand as the doctors and nurses continued to work on him. Finally, the doctor turned to me and said “I’m so sorry.” My precious son lost his life to influenza that day, and my life was irrevocably changed as a result.
My story is not unique. I have met many parents who’ve lost a child to the flu or had a child suffer serious medical complications as a result of the flu. I want parents to understand how critically important it is for all children and their families to get their flu vaccinations each and every year. The flu vaccine is the best protection we have in our fight against influenza. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends annual flu vaccination for everyone 6 months of age and older. I also want people to understand that getting an annual flu vaccination not only protects you and your family, but it also helps protect others in your community by limiting the potential for an outbreak.
Families Fighting Flu
As a result of my loss, I became aware of an organization of others who have also had their lives forever changed by influenza. Families Fighting Flu (FFF) is a national, non-profit organization comprised of families whose children have suffered serious medical complications or died from influenza, as well as other advocates and healthcare professionals committed to flu prevention. I have since become the Chief Operating Officer at FFF. Together, every day in honor of our children, we work to increase awareness about the seriousness of influenza in the hope that no other family has to endure the devastating effects of this serious disease. Every year, FFF focuses on educational outreach using various platforms to inform others about the dangers of the flu and to advocate for annual flu vaccinations. Our mission is to reduce the number of hospitalizations and deaths due to flu, and our vision is that no child or family member is lost to this vaccine-preventable disease.
To learn more about our organization, please visit www.familiesfightingflu.org. On our website, we offer educational resources related to flu prevention, facts vs. myths, our families’ stories, and a flu vaccine locator so you can find a provider offering influenza vaccine near you. Our ongoing educational campaign called Stay in the Game™ aims to keep everyone healthy through annual flu vaccinations so that no one misses out on school, work or recreational activities. Make getting your annual flu vaccinations a fun activity for the entire family by going together and then celebrating with a special event like going out to your favorite restaurant or the movies. Together, we can team up and make a difference in the fight against influenza!
Editor’s note: We would like to thank guest author, Serese Marotta, for sharing her family’s story about how influenza affected them. Her son Joseph’s story was recently highlighted in an NBC Nightly News story, which can be viewed here. For additional information about influenza, visit the VEC’s website.