My Healthy Toddler Died From The Flu & He Is Why My Family Gets The Flu Shot Every Season

Laura Sidari

the flu
Laura Sidari

As told to Lauren Levy by Laura Sidari. 

Last year, Leon was one of 180 children nationally who died from the flu. The 4-year-old was an “old soul” with patience and gentleness beyond his age. His smile was infectious and his love for his brothers inspiring. Like roughly half of the children who die annually, he did not have a history of prior medical problems -- and this was the problem. His lungs were destroyed by bacterial pneumonia secondary to the flu

  • It was on the morning of Christmas Eve that Leon was officially diagnosed with bacterial pneumonia and Influenza A.

    the flu
    Laura Sidari

    When he was first diagnosed in the emergency room, my husband and I did not even consider the possibility that he may not be coming home with us. We believed that his condition was promising. We held confidence in his treatment plan, as Leon was rapidly admitted to a Pediatric Intensive Care Unit. 

    Although not pediatricians, my husband and I are both physicians, and we clung to a personal feeling of security in that fact as well. We had quickly recognized Leon’s difficulty breathing and had brought him in rapidly for treatment. 

    The events leading up to his hospital care also provided personal reassurance. Earlier that morning, Leon had eaten breakfast. He had dressed himself in his “big boy” jeans and had put on his black Velcro sneakers prior to leaving home for the hospital. 

    He had only been ill for one day in total, which had only begun with signs of fever and general muscle aches that had started the day before. He had spent the day prior sipping chicken noodle soup and watching cartoons on the living room couch. He did not have a history of significant medical problems prior to getting sick with the flu. 

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  • He died rapidly, only two days after showing general flu symptoms. It was Christmas morning.

    the flu
    Laura Sidari

    Even as Leon failed to respond to escalating medical care, as a mom it felt like an impossibility that my child was going to die. Nothing can prepare you for losing your child. In the hospital that day, I was simply a parent, not a doctor. I could not comprehend what was happening. Any semblance of medical knowledge and understanding fell aside as I tried to be there as a mother in those critical final moments for my child. 

    Leon passed away early Christmas morning after developing pulmonary hemorrhage (bleeding in his lungs) from his condition. I remember my final moments with him, crying in his blonde hair and kissing his forehead.

  • As a mother, I wish I had fully appreciated how dangerous the flu is for healthy kids.

    I had delayed his shot to align with a well-child visit later in the season, which he did not survive to attend. I now intimately understand why the medical community overwhelmingly recommends the annual influenza vaccine for everyone over the age of 6 months. It has been medically established that the flu shot reduces the risk of influenza-related mortality by 65 percent for healthy children. Of the children who die annually from flu-related complications, roughly 80 percent did not have their flu shot that season. It is the best option available to prevent child death due to the flu.

  • I am a physician, and yet even I was not aware of the risk of the flu to my healthy child. 

    the flu
    Laura Sidari

    My specialty isn't in pediatrics or infectious disease, but I have extensively reviewed the literature on this topic in an effort to try to learn from this tragedy. In the aftermath of losing him, as a mother and with two other children at home, I needed to fully understand the risks posed to them as well by Leon’s condition when it came to getting the flu shot this year.

    I utilized medical journal search platforms and reviewed literature from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. I discovered that Leon’s story was similar to many other pediatric flu-related deaths. I discovered that roughly half of children who die annually from flu complications do not have a history of prior medical problems. 

    Like Leon, many die rapidly within a few days of showing initial symptoms. The literature shows that children without pre-existing health conditions are more likely to die rapidly from flu-related complications compared to other pediatric populations. Of the children who die, nearly two-thirds pass within seven days of developing symptoms and one-third pass away at home or in the ER. And, most striking to me, I read about the clearly documented benefits afforded by the flu shot for these children. I discovered that roughly 80 percent of children who die each year from flu-related causes have not had their flu shot that season. 

    Even with recognizing early signs of concern, as my husband and I did with Leon, there is often so little time to medically intervene for these kids.

  • Last year, if I had seen a story like my own, I would have prioritized the shot differently. 

    Since Leon passed, I have discovered that there are many wonderful moms out there, including other physicians, who have let the shot slip through the cracks this time of year. The fall and winter months can be particularly challenging for families, with multiple demands on our time and energy, particularly as the holidays approach. As moms, we need to help one another in sharing the information that helps us best prioritize what we and our children need.

  • It can feel shameful as a physician, losing a child to a preventative illness. As a parent, this experience has been indescribably painful.

    the flu
    Laura Sidari

    There are no words to describe the agony of watching your middle child suddenly become the oldest or having to open Christmas presents for a child who will never be coming home. When we care for our children as parents, we give them pieces of ourselves that cannot be returned. My children have touched every fiber of my being. There are parts of me that I anticipate will always be missing after losing Leon. Like many other parents who have lost children, I feel as if my “old life” ended when Leon died and a different life began. Every day, Leon is not far from my mind. 

  • There are individuals within the anti-vaxx community who have posted quite vocally on my page.

    Laura Sidari

    Based upon the comments on my post, it is clear that the individuals within the anti-vaxx community are passionate about their beliefs, as well as what they think is right for themselves and their children. I am passionate too.

    With the Internet, there are many places that you can turn to for information about health and wellness. However, I choose to place my trust in the research and recommendations coming from those within the medical community. I base the health care decisions for my children on the recommendations from qualified medical organizations and providers. Personally, I do not feel the health of my children is best left to fringe, hypothetical, or observational recommendations from those who do not have the qualifications to be providing medical advice. I want to know from the experts.

    The same doctors who recommend the flu shot are the ones who care for my children when they are ill. My physician colleagues, the ones who have come to my aid in multiple ways since I lost Leon, are the kinds of medical professionals making this recommendation. Organizations like the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend the flu shot for everyone over the age of 6 months, with very few medical exceptions. They recommend it at this time of the year. This is where I place my trust.

  • Leon is my reason this season, and every season, for getting flu shots on time.

    the flu
    Laura Sidari

    This is the best time of the year to get the shot. Holiday planning and fall festivities can wait, but the flu shot cannot. If Leon or another little person is your reason for getting the flu shot this year, I ask that you consider sharing a family photo and spreading the word so that others may know too.