To Vaccinate or Not–Insights from a Mother Who Lost a Child to Influenza
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To Vaccinate or Not–Insights from a Mother Who Lost a Child to Influenza

As a mother of two, I have always been pro–vaccination because there’s a reason vaccines were created. The fact that vaccines exist indicates these diseases are something we need to be protected from, but honestly I never thought vaccine–preventable diseases were the most likely cause for concern when it came to my kids. As a parent, I used to worry about the typical things—like having them hold my hand as they crossed the street, wearing their helmets when they rode their bikes, and don’t talk to strangers! That is until I lost my healthy, five–year–old son, Joseph, to H1N1 flu during the pandemic in October 2009.

Joseph was a typical kindergartner who loved Star Wars, Spiderman, Transformers, and riding the school bus. I had taken Joseph and his older sister to get their flu vaccine in late September 2009. However, the H1N1 strain was not in the seasonal vaccine that year and the supplemental H1N1 vaccine wasn’t yet available in our community at that time. Looking back, I don’t remember being especially worried about H1N1 because, like so many others, I suppose I still lived in that cloud of “it won’t happen to me”. Besides, I was doing all I could to protect my children from the dangers of the world—wasn’t I?

Joseph’s story started innocently enough. It was October 9th and his school called to say he threw up on the school bus. No big deal, right? As parents, we frequently deal with bumps, bruises, and the occasional vomit. Since I was out of town, my husband went to pick Joseph up and bring him home. As the day progressed, Joseph kept throwing up and was very lethargic. My husband finally called our pediatrician that afternoon and they advised him to take Joseph to the local urgent care. Upon arrival, Joseph’s oxygen levels were very low and they immediately transported him via ambulance to the local children’s hospital. Although the nurses commented that he looked like he had the flu, the rapid flu test and the “gold standard” PCR test came back negative (which turns out weren’t capable of detecting H1N1 at that time). Joseph was eventually diagnosed with pneumonia that evening and the hospital staff started the traditional antibiotic treatment. It only took two days for Joseph to be downgraded from intensive care to the regular pediatric floor. Several days later, the doctor came in and told us Joseph’s culture was growing influenza and that it was likely H1N1, but not to worry, it was “just the flu” and we’d start him on antiviral medication. The next few days were a blur of breathing treatments, testing, medications, and specialist visits. But all was going well and we were preparing to be discharged shortly. However, all that changed on the ninth day of Joseph’s hospital stay. It was a Saturday morning and I had left my husband in charge at the hospital while I went home to spend some time with our seven–year–old daughter. When I left the hospital, Joseph was alert and talking and overall, doing as well as can be expected when you’ve been eating hospital food and hooked up to an IV for nine days. He was anxious to go home, but being a good sport about doing what he was told. When I returned to the hospital later that evening, things were changing rapidly. Joseph’s blood pressure had dropped so low the nurses could not get an accurate reading. The doctors were called and we made our way back to intensive care. This was the first time I felt in my gut that something was wrong. The doctors couldn’t figure out what was happening. The next several hours included blood work, x–rays, consultations, questions—it was a flurry of activity, throughout which Joseph remained alert. I remember trying to distract him from all the poking and prodding with some cartoons on the TV. The doctors didn’t seem particularly alarmed about his...