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Survivors’ Stories: Keep Holiday Flu Prevention Top of Mind This Season

Posted on December 12, 2023
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The holiday season is in full swing. As we gather with friends and family for festive gatherings and cherished traditions, the last thing on your mind may be getting a flu shot. Yet, amidst the laughter and festivities, making sure your family is vaccinated against the flu is an essential item to check off your holiday to-do list.

Below, we share a few stories of people of all ages who faced unexpected health challenges during the holidays due to influenza complications. Amid what should be a festive time of year, these four individuals found themselves grappling with the harsh reality of flu virus-related complications. Through their experiences, we aim to inspire and encourage everyone to prioritize their health and the health of their communities by getting vaccinated this holiday season.

Caroline Miller

On December 18, 2012, Caroline Miller, a 5-year-old with mild asthma, began showing flu symptoms. While she’d received a flu shot every year prior, this was the first time getting vaccinated fell off the family’s radar. Despite initial treatment at a local hospital, her condition rapidly worsened. Diagnosed with influenza A, double pneumonia, and facing a host of life-threatening complications, Caroline endured a harrowing 27-minute helicopter flight to Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, where she was placed on an oscillating ventilator, a crucial intervention not available at previous hospitals. 

Over the next two weeks, Caroline fought for her life in a drug-induced coma, intubated, and on the oscillating ventilator, battling flu, pneumonia, severe sepsis, septic shock, hypoxemia, and impending cardio-respiratory failure. 

Thankfully, Caroline’s condition started to take a turn for the better after Christmas. The complications she faced were long and frightening. Her sister Katie remembers spending the holiday in the hospital with nurses and staff, but Caroline’s little body fought her way back, and she returned home a little over three weeks after first arriving at the hospital. 

Kaden Stevenson

Seven-year-old Kaden Steven was an extremely active little boy who just wanted a BMX bike for Christmas when his health took a sudden turn. What seemed like a common illness quickly escalated into a life-threatening situation. When his illness worsened over four days, with symptoms including leg pain, swelling, and a full-body rash, he was rushed to the emergency room and diagnosed with influenza A and strep, which led to toxic shock syndrome and even caused organ failure. Kaden underwent extensive treatments, including a fasciotomy and the removal of muscle tissue, but despite efforts to save his legs, both were amputated, and he never got to ride the BMX ride he received for Christmas. 

After weeks of intensive care and rehabilitation, Kaden emerged with a resilient spirit, affectionately referring to his prosthetic limbs as “robot legs.” His mother, Michele Stevenson, now advocates for vaccination awareness, urging parents to prioritize their children’s health and recognize early signs of flu symptoms to prevent such devastating outcomes.

Nathaniel Gorenstein

In 2009, just before Thanksgiving, 4-year-old Nate Gorenstein started coughing. While he had received the first dose of the vaccine, his illness progressed rapidly, leading to a respiratory arrest, emergency PICU admission, and a life-threatening battle with H1N1 influenza. Enduring complications like fluctuating blood pressure and failing kidneys, Nate’s recovery was a challenging 12-day journey. Today, Nate is a resilient H1N1 survivor, and his family, including his father and Families Fighting Flu Medical Advisor Dr.Scott Gorenstein, advocate for flu vaccination. Though Nate didn’t build full immunity in time, his story underscores the importance of annual flu vaccinations for everyone.

Christa Mitchell

In December 2017, Christa was a healthy and active mother and wife who worked full-time and loved to attend her son’s school and sports events. Over the holidays, several of her family members had the flu, and Christa began feeling ill herself.

Initially, she dismissed her symptoms but was diagnosed with H1N1, pneumonia, and acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS). Hospitalized for a total of 48 days, Christa endured ventilator support, blood transfusions, and lost fingers, fingertips, and toes due to septic shock. Her life, now marked by ongoing medical complications and PTSD, serves as a stark reminder of the flu’s potential severity. Christa had skipped the flu vaccine that year, but she now advocates passionately for annual vaccination, emphasizing the urgent need to prioritize flu prevention to avoid similar tragedies.

“It’s stories like these that set our mission at Families Fighting Flu,” said Michele Slafkosky, Executive Director.  “We don’t want one more family to go through the trauma of having a loved one become ill, face serious, long-term medical consequences, or worse, lose their life to the flu.  Especially during the holidays, when the generations come together, it is critical that each of us protect ourselves and our friends and relatives from becoming unnecessarily sick from the flu.  If you’ve not yet done it—get your flu shot.”

What Can You Do this Flu Season?

These stories serve as a reminder that a small but powerful action like getting a flu shot can make a world of difference, but they are just a few of the dozens of experiences we’ve gathered at Families Fighting Flu. Every year, otherwise healthy individuals of all ages suffer complications from influenza viruses that result in hospitalization and even death. As we get into the 2023-2024 flu season, we must all do our part to prevent the flu

This year, give yourself and your loved ones the gift of protection against flu complications, ensuring that the holiday season is not only filled with joy but also with the peace of mind that comes from taking a proactive step towards a healthier, happier celebration. You can check out our guide to How to Prepare for the Next Flu Season, learn more about the flu vaccine here, and, most importantly, get your flu vaccine before heading home for the holidays. 

Remember, getting vaccinated not only helps protect you but it also protects others you may come into contact with, including vulnerable populations like young children, people dealing with chronic illnesses, and elders who may have weakened immune systems. Walk-in flu vaccines are available at most national pharmacies, including big box department stores and warehouse clubs.

Learn More About Fighting the Flu

Families Fighting Flu educates about the seriousness of influenza and the importance of annual vaccination. We imagine a world in which no one suffers serious flu complications or death. Learn more about our mission and resources here and empower your family to stay healthy this flu season.

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