Get a Flu Shot: Healthy Adults Are At Risk Too

In the interest of promoting more robust discourse around the importance of regular vaccinations for serious but preventable contagious conditions, MHA@GW is hosting a guest post series in honor of National Immunization Awareness Month (NIAM). Throughout the month of August, we’re featuring pieces from thought leaders and advocates in the field who were asked to write about the importance of immunization in 2015. Read more about the project in our introduction post.

By Sharon Hicks, Parents of Kids with Infectious Diseases

Kristi was a beautiful, intelligent elementary school teacher, and my only sibling. She was healthy, and ran or walked several miles many times a week.

She was active in the community, supporting anything for children. She made sure her own two children were given lots of experiences by visiting zoos and national parks, camping, playing sports and doing many other activities. She was always on the go. She encouraged all of us to spend time with family and to put aside our daily chores so that we wouldn’t miss out on opportunities to make memories. She was an avid photographer and had thousands of photos stored on memory cards. She was always the one to pick up on someone being left out, and took time to show them kindness and love. Kristi developed many strong relationships because of this positive attitude. She was very strong-willed, fighting for what she believed was the right thing in life.

My sister was someone special.

Because Kristi taught first grade, she was frequently exposed to colds and other illnesses. Even though she was healthy, on December 12, 2013, she began to develop symptoms of influenza. She had a headache, extreme fatigue, nausea, vomiting and a hacking cough. She went to her physician, who prescribed Tamiflu and told her to take some over-the-counter flu relief medications. She decided not to purchase the Tamiflu because, even with insurance, the cost was $65, and she had Christmas presents left to buy. Kristi didn’t want anyone to go without a precious gift, particularly her children.

The next two days she began to worsen, to the point she couldn’t get out of bed to get herself fluids. Friends came by to help her and brought her Gatorade. My mother took her chicken noodle broth, and she was able to get out of bed on Sunday, December 15.

She still complained of a headache, but drank plenty of fluids to try to build up her strength. Kristi’s fever continued, and she started noticing some chest pain Sunday evening while in the shower. Once out, she said it went away. Urgent care had already closed, so she told us she would return to her doctor’s office on Monday morning just to make sure she wasn’t developing any complications.

My mother asked her if she had gotten a flu vaccine this year and she said, “No, but I will definitely get one next year!” She was so scared of needles that she opted to not get a vaccine, thinking lots of people get the flu and suffer through it a few days and get better.

She was not this lucky.

On December 16 at 1:13 p.m., only four days into her illness, I got a call from my dad saying an ambulance had been to Kristi’s house and it didn’t sound good. Hearing those words from my dad, who was an EMT, made me realize it was serious. As I rushed to the hospital, I picked up my mom from her job and tried to reassure her to stay calm. I tried to prepare her for Kristi maybe being on a ventilator or unconscious, just in case.

As we approached the emergency room doors, my father came out with tears rolling down his cheeks, and my mother instantly knew without him speaking. She desperately asked, “She didn’t make it?” He quietly shook his head. As I stood there clinging to my parents as they mourned the death of their child, I thought of my mother’s words that I had so quickly brushed off: “People die from the flu, Sharon.”

As a registered nurse, I have taken care of many patients with influenza and they have recovered. I brushed it off when my mom had been worrying over the weekend because my sister was healthy. She was active. She was an adult with no complications.

Kristi was so healthy, she gave my dad a kidney 10 years ago. At her regular checkups, her physician always said things looked great and she was doing well. Healthy adults don’t die from the flu.

She was a fighter, she was so strong-willed. People like that don’t succumb to the flu.

But I was wrong. Healthy adults and children die every year from the flu because they do not get vaccinated — the No. 1 way to prevent infection.

Losing a sister, and having to see my parents mourn the loss of their first-born child, was the hardest thing I have faced in my life. Seeing the pain in their eyes, the thousands of tears shed, was crushing to me. I not only lost my sister but also had to watch my parents’ pain, knowing I could not fix this. However, one thing I know is that it could have been prevented. It only takes a minute. The pain of a needle doesn’t compare to the pain of watching your family suffer through grief — trust me.

Influenza can be prevented with a simple yearly vaccine taken. It’s your choice. Please make the decision to vaccinate yourself against this deadly illness.

Vaccine advocate Sharon Hicks shared her family’s personal story as a part of PKIDs’ (Parents of Kids with Infectious Diseases) Your Choice program. It’s her hope that we all choose vaccination over the risk of infection, for ourselves and those we love.