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Impact Story: Remembering February Flu Battles

Posted on February 8, 2024
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Kayauna Zabel was a 20-year-old paraprofessional who lived with her husband, brother, mother, and stepfather in Miami, Oklahoma. She called in sick to work and over the next four days she recovered at home—or so she thought.  When she went back to work she began feeling worse, and the next evening, her husband, Preston, took her to the emergency room. The staff did not seem concerned and sent her home with cough medicine. Just three days later, the flu claimed Kayauna’s young life, and the lives of her family members were forever changed. 

To make matters worse, Kayauna’s brother, Josiah Swenson, was also hospitalized with flu and missed his sister’s funeral. He spent a painstaking two months in the hospital, including three weeks on life support, and is currently still recovering from lung damage caused by the flu. We’d like to shed light on those individuals like Kayauna who fought the flu but sadly lost their battle, as well as their families whose lives are permanently altered.

As flu season ramps up, we are reminded that February is a time when we often see flu deaths

From Healthy to Hospitalized

Blake Crane, 16, Brittney Peters, 13, and Martin McGowan, 15, were healthy teens involved in extracurriculars. From baseball and gymnastic tryouts to looking forward to a weekend of snowboarding, the only thing they had on their minds before being hospitalized for flu was being active and healthy. 

Sadly, each succumbed to the flu following a short, but severe, illness. 

While Blake typically received an annual flu vaccine each year, that year getting vaccinated slipped through the cracks. Brittney’s family didn’t know she needed a flu vaccine and 48 hours after first experiencing cold-like symptoms she was unable to breathe. When transported to the hospital the next day she was placed in a medically induced coma due to a collapsed lung and intubated but later went into cardiac arrest. 

Meanwhile, Martin presented to the emergency room after a day feeling sluggish with aching legs. By the time the ER doctor took his vitals, his lips were white. The influenza virus was attacking his muscles and causing compartment syndrome, which limits blood circulation and causes severe pain putting him at risk of amputation. Martin faced even more severe complications as when he was taken into surgery later that afternoon his heart stopped beating.

These stories are a reminder that flu can affect everyone, even young people and those without a weakened immune system. While age and overall health do play a part in preventing severe complications they are not foolproof. Flu shots are the best prevention against flu viruses, followed by testing and treatment.

It’s Not Too Late

We have gathered many more stories from families who have lost or come close to losing loved ones from the flu. This month, we also recognize the anniversary of the passing of Jessica Stein, Emily Lastinger, Will Hauver, JJ Neiman-Brown, Alana Yaksich, Chance Chandler , Emma Splan, and Madison Romero. The family members they have left behind share their stories so that others recognize the warning signs of serious complications from influenza and understand that annual flu vaccination saves lives. Testing is also key to knowing whether you have flu or another respiratory virus and getting proper treatment, such as antiviral drugs that lessen fever and symptoms and shorten the time you are sick. 

Should You Get Tested for Flu?

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), flu symptoms can range from:

  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Sore throat
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Body aches
  • Headache
  • Chills

Some people may have vomiting and diarrhea, which is more common in children. You may even experience respiratory symptoms without a fever. These symptoms can vary widely from person to person so the best line of defense (after being vaccinated), is to seek medical care and get tested if you are experiencing these common flu symptoms.

Learn More About Families Fighting Flu

Founded in 2004, Families Fighting Flu (FFF) is a national, nonprofit, 501(c)(3) advocacy organization dedicated to protecting children, families, and communities against the flu through education about the seriousness of influenza. Our organization includes families whose loved ones have suffered serious medical complications or died from influenza, as well as other advocates and healthcare professionals committed to flu education and prevention.

In 2024, we commemorate 20 years of honoring our loved ones by working to increase awareness about the seriousness of the disease and to reduce the number of hospitalizations and deaths caused by the flu annually. We strive to increase vaccination rates for everyone six months and older and encourage symptomatic individuals to get tested and receive appropriate treatment. Learn more about our mission and resources here so that you can empower your family to stay healthy this flu season.

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