Health

The flu turned deadly in 48 hours for this young family. They are now vaccinated every year

The flu turned deadly in 48 hours for this young family. They are now vaccinated every year

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CNN

Jessica Richman felt fear wash over her—again.

In October, she watched as her 3-year-old daughter, Layla, became unusually lethargic, running a high fever and beginning to experience shortness of breath. It was a painful reminder of her other daughter, Caden, who died of the flu in December 2014.

Caden was the same age as Layla.

“It was very similar to Cayden’s symptoms. So of course I jumped into high gear,” Richman said.

When Layla’s symptoms started on Halloween, Richman took her to an urgent care clinic in their hometown of Newport News, Virginia.

“Her heart rate was elevated. Her fever was very high. They kept her there most of the afternoon to monitor her,” Richman said. “I explained to the doctor who was there that I had lost a 3-year-old daughter to the flu, so it was very scary for me. He really took that to heart.

Layla’s medical team diagnosed her with the flu and gave her Motrin for the fever and the antiviral Tamiflu to treat the infection.

“She felt better pretty quickly, within 24 hours,” Richman said.

Richman’s experience this flu season was dramatically different than in 2014, when she lost her beloved Caden.

One key difference: Caden wasn’t vaccinated in 2014. Layla got her shot in September.

“I really think the vaccine played a big role,” said Richman, who serves as the nonprofit’s secretary Families fighting the flu.

Although Layla became ill when she encountered the flu virus weeks after the vaccination, “she recovered quickly,” Richman said, adding that no one else in their household — which also includes her husband, Matt, and their 6-year-old son, Parker — caught the flu from Leila.

They were all vaccinated before Leila’s illness.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that at least 16,000 people have died from the flu this season, and at least 79 deaths have been in children.

Seasonal influenza activity continues to be very prevalent in the United States, but has declined in most areas in recent weeks. Still, public health officials encourage people to get an annual flu shot as the best way to protect against this virus.

Many people who do not get vaccinated against seasonal flu are not necessarily against vaccination. Maybe they just didn’t have time. Such was the case with Cayden in 2014.

Richman and Caden’s father received flu shots that year, but Caden’s shot had to be delayed because she had a cold at the time.

“Since I was also ill-informed about the flu at the time, I didn’t think it was super urgent to go and immediately give her a flu shot as soon as she got better,” Richman said. “I kind of put it off.”

One Thursday, a few weeks later, Caden wasn’t her usual chatty and cheerful self. The 3-year-old, fondly called CadyBug, was tired and developed a cough. She stayed home from daycare with her father and he took her to the pediatrician’s office.

The doctor thought Caden’s symptoms were likely from a cold virus and sent her home without a flu test, Richman said.

The next morning, Caden still had a fever. She was coughing and constantly begging for water. Her father took her back to the pediatrician’s office, but was sent home again.

“Nobody tested her for the flu. No one seemed to think it was the flu,” Richman said. “She was sent home that Friday afternoon.”

When they got home, Caden’s symptoms worsened.

“She deteriorated very, very quickly. It was for a couple of hours,” Richman said. “It was very deep, shallow breathing. She wasn’t breathing properly.

Richman said she was on her way home from work when she got a chilling phone call from Caden’s father: Caden had stopped breathing during his nap. He had called 911. Richman arrived home to find emergency vehicles outside her house and paramedics working on Caden.

“She could not be resuscitated in the house,” Richman said. “During the ambulance ride, I wasn’t told at the time that she couldn’t be resuscitated, but I could tell because I was riding in an ambulance and there was no noise. So I knew it was over.”

When Caden died, her parents still had no idea it was the flu.

“It wasn’t until we got the autopsy that it became clear to me that the flu had caused her lungs to fill up with mucus until she could no longer breathe,” Richman said. “I had no idea what happened until we got the autopsy back.”

Before Caden’s tragic death, her mother didn’t know the flu could be fatal.

“I was completely surprised,” she said. “I had no idea this could happen.”

Nearly a decade later, Richman and her family get vaccinated together every year in Caden’s memory. They wear pink and share social media posts about it using the hashtag #pinkforcadybugsince pink was Caden’s favorite color.

The the most common flu symptoms are fever, body aches and shaking chills. In some cases, it can cause lower respiratory tract infections, known as pneumonia, or directly infect heart cells and brain cells, causing inflammation in those organs, said Dr. Tara Vijayan, an infectious disease physician at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA University, Los Angeles, said in an email.

She added that inflammation can cause the body’s own cells to die.

“More often, though, if the flu is going to cause severe illness, it’s because it destroys the lining of the airways so that the lungs become more susceptible to other bacterial pneumonias,” Vijayan said. “In general, those who are unvaccinated and have multiple medical problems or have a compromised immune system are at the highest risk, but we have seen death in younger, otherwise healthy people.”

She added that older people or those who are pregnant are also at high risk of complications.

Treating patients with severe flu is a common but difficult experience for Dr. Ali Khan, who specializes in internal medicine at one of Oak Street Health’s primary care network locations in Chicago.

“It’s an incredibly difficult infection to monitor as a clinician,” Hahn said, adding that flu infections can become deadly when someone gets a superimposed bacterial infection like pneumonia or develops severe sepsis.

“We get people coming into hospitals with seizures or encephalitis caused by the flu. People who come in with significant muscle damage and breakdown, like the kind you get when you’re quite dehydrated and overtired,” he said. “Suffice it to say, I’ve seen this far too many times than I’d like to see as a clinician.”

It’s not too late to get a flu shot for this season if you haven’t already, Hahn said.

“We’re not out of the woods yet,” he said. “Absolutely, you can still get vaccinated.”

Vijayan had similar feelings.

“Our flu rate was unexpectedly high in the late fall and it appears to be leveling off, but I would be absolutely concerned about another spike in cases this winter,” she said. “It’s absolutely not too late to get a flu shot.”


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