For days, Madi Allen, then 12, had a fever and a cough that kept getting worse. Mum Shelle Allen thought Madi was exhausted from a busy winter and had a bad cold. Madi gradually became sicker and needed help showering and it was Allen who noticed Madi’s lips were blue as she struggled to breathe.
“I knew something big was going on,” Allen, 47, of Jacksonville, Illinois, told TODAY.com. “His face was all sunken – it was almost greyish.”
They rushed to the hospital where the Allens learned what was wrong with Madi: she had the flu and double pneumonia.
“I never imagined that we would finally get the flu diagnosis,” Allen said. “It’s just the flu. We recover. And I’ve said it many times myself. The sad thing is, I didn’t know the flu didn’t discriminate. It doesn’t matter if you are a healthy person or an elderly person.
Persistent cold that won’t go away
In February 2011, Madi fell ill with what appeared to be a cold at the time. She had a fever and a cough. The family gave him over-the-counter medicine, but his cough persisted.
“His symptoms got worse. But every time I gave him counter meds, like Tylenol or cold meds, his symptoms seemed to improve a bit,” Allen says. “I wouldn’t say she was her normal self. But I felt like there were enough improvements that it wasn’t an emergency. Over the weekend, Madi’s cold seemed stable. On Monday, when she tried to take a shower, she needed her mother’s help. That’s when Allen knew something was seriously wrong with his daughter’s health.
“I thought there was something more going on,” Allen says. “The cough started to get worse.”
When they arrived at the emergency room, the family learned what was making Madi so sick. Madi had double pneumonia and flu. Allen felt stunned.
“I was completely shocked that the flu could cause him so much trouble,” she says.
Madi normally received a flu shot, but that year it “fell off my radar” and she didn’t get one.
“She was always vaccinated,” Allen says. “That year (she didn’t have one). Once again, I return to (the fact that) I did not know the importance of it.
At their local hospital, doctors gave her as much oxygen as possible before transferring her to another hospital.
“His body was just failing. His organs were failing. By then they had already intubated her,” Allen recalled. “They came and told my husband and I there was nothing more they could do for her in this hospital…she had to be on life support because her lungs were closing.”
His kidneys were also failing and his heart was showing signs of early failure. At the larger hospital, she was put on ECMO, a heart and lung bypass machine, and on dialysis.
“At first, I was in complete denial. Again, I go back to “it’s just the flu”. We overcome the flu. It was my thought process,” Allen says. “We were lucky that each hospital took her to the next hospital to get the best possible care.”
Who is most at risk of getting the flu?
According to NBC News, flu hospitalizations have reached their highest level in a decade. About 78,000 people have been hospitalized with the flu and 4,500 have died since October. Young children are at a particularly high risk of catching the flu, Texas family physician Dr. Lisa Doggett tells TODAY.com.
“For a lot of people, the flu generally doesn’t have the level of mortality risk that something like COVID does. So, in comparison, you are less likely to die if you get the flu than if you get COVID,” she says. “That doesn’t mean everyone is immune to the flu.”
The flu can have the greatest impact on young children and the elderly.
“Generally, children are at a much higher risk of getting the flu than middle-aged adults or older children,” Doggett says. “Young children are one of the high risk groups for influenza.”
This is because the immune system of young children is not as robust as that of older children and middle-aged people.
“Those of us who are older and have been around for a while have been exposed to (many viruses) and our immune systems are adapting,” she says. “When we’ve been exposed to a lot of different things…we get a certain level of immunity and we’re able to fight it off better.”
Even still, having had the flu before or having been vaccinated against the flu does not give people long-lasting protection against the flu, which mutates every year. This is why getting an annual flu shot remains essential.
“This vaccine immunity wanes over time, just like with the COVID vaccine,” says Doggett. “The flu virus itself is different every year, so it’s important to get an updated flu shot every year.”
This year, that seems even more important as children with influenza, RSV and COVID overwhelm children’s hospitals.
“My husband is a hospital-based pediatrician,” says Doggett. “He’s been practicing for 20 years and he’s had some of the worst changes in his life in the last two weeks because they’re experiencing huge volumes of cases.”
Flu symptoms include:
These symptoms are similar to other respiratory illnesses, so it can be difficult to tell what a child has. Doggett urges parents of children 5 and under to see the pediatrician because they are at higher risk for serious illness. Parents should seek emergency care if they notice:
Blue tint around the mouth.
Not being able to complete a sentence due to breathing difficulties.
The skin around the ribs sucks in when they breathe.
Lifetime recovery and complications
Madi spent 93 days in hospital recovering. She had to “learn to do everything everywhere”, including walking, eating, brushing her teeth and doing other daily tasks.
“As an athlete, she was able to bounce a ball or kick a soccer ball for most of her life and she had to relearn how to do all of that,” says Allen. “She has to go to therapy five days a week (after leaving the hospital).”
Madi slowly improved and even received a scholarship to play football in college. However, she still has a “chronic cough” and lung disease.
“About two years ago, his lung disease started to get progressively worse,” says Allen. “Doctors actually removed the lower lobe of his left lung.”
This helped Madi tremendously.
“I remember after she was healed she was like, ‘Mom, I haven’t felt this good in 10 years,'” Allen said. “We just didn’t realize how much damage (there was).”
Allen sometimes blames himself for not having Madi vaccinated that year. Since their experience, she began working with Families Fighting Flu to raise awareness of the importance of getting the flu shot every year.
“I tell our story so that hopefully no other family will have a story like ours,” Allen says.
This article originally appeared on TODAY.com
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