Friday, December 12, 2014

It's Only the Flu That Killed Her

By Jeff Calaway
Senior Content Specialist,
Cook Children's Checkup Newsroom

This story was originally published at checkupnewsroom.com

Ten years ago, the Lastingers’ lives seemed so perfect. Joe and Jen were the parents to two boys, a 3-year-old daughter and another little girl on the way.

They worried about their children, but it was the standard concerns of most moms and dads. Could their children swim? Were their car seats the right fit?

One issue that didn’t cross their mind was the flu. After all, in 2004, healthy toddlers weren’t even supposed to get their flu shots. A lot’s changed since then, much of it because of the death of Emily Claire Lastinger.

“One thing that was never on our radar, not even in the tiniest way, was influenza,” Joe Lastinger said. “Emily had just started preschool at the time. She loved it. Her two older brothers were always so helpful with her. They loved her so much. Emily was advanced for her age and absolutely fearless. She was the kind of kid you dropped off on the first day of preschool and she was fine. She just ignored you and went on about her business.”

Emily was an active child, definitely not a “napper.” But she came home one day from school, tired and wanting to sleep. Her parents thought she might be sick, but didn’t think it was anything serious. The following day, the Lastingers took their daughter to their pediatrician. Tests determined Emily had the flu. Joe and Jen were told she needed rest. They should keep her at home for a few days and monitor her fever.

Over the next couple of days, Emily went back and forth from being listless to showing signs of her old self with bursts of energy. On Super Bowl Sunday of 2004, she showed signs of dehydration and was vomiting. They called their doctor again and made an appointment for 10 a.m. Monday morning.

Joe stayed home to help care for Emily because Jen’s pregnancy prevented her from lifting her daughter. As Joe went upstairs to make some work calls, he heard his wife screaming for her husband. As he bounded up the stairs he saw his daughter wasn’t breathing. After being taken to an emergency room at an area hospital in their Grapevine hometown, Emily was transferred to Cook Children’s.

“Once we got to Cook Children’s, it was all hands on deck,” Joe said. “But it was too late. When night approached, about 8 o’clock that evening, the doctors said Emily was really, really sick. They couldn’t detect any brain activity and they had exhausted what they could do.”

At around 10 p.m., the Lastingers said their goodbyes and a little while later their daughter’s short, little life ended.

“It was just a shock to us,” Joe said. “I know it’s always a shock for parents to lose their child, but we just couldn’t come to grips that she died from the flu – and it happened so quickly, in just five and a half days.”

The Lastingers still believed there had to be an underlying condition or cause for their daughter’s death, but the autopsy showed that she was a perfectly healthy little girl before she became ill from the flu.

Amazingly, as they grieved for the death of one daughter, the Lastingers rejoiced at the birth of another. Thirteen days after Emily’s death, Jen gave birth to Alea. The birth of a new child also gave them more resolve to make sure their children would be safe against the flu.

“Our eyes opened to what was happening nationally and the number of kids who had died of the flu,” Lastinger said. “We wanted to help all the kids, but we had to focus on our family first. We wanted to make sure our kids were going to be alright and it wasn’t something that ruined their lives. Our younger son Andrew was there at home when Emily died. That’s something you don’t want your kids to experience. We took care of our family then, but in the back of our minds, we knew we had to do more to help kids just like our own children.”

With their eyes now opened to the dangers of the flu, the Lastingers made it their mission to stop other parents from losing their child to the illness.

They reached out to doctors both at home and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (the CDC). The Lastingers learned that more than 150 children died of the flu in 2004. They met other parents who lost their children that year and they fought for changes to be made in treating children with the flu.

It’s shocking to realize how far things have come since 2004. Flu vaccines weren’t recommended for healthy kids in Emily’s age group 10 years ago. It was only recommended for children between the age of 6 months and 2 years of age, and for children with underlying health conditions like asthma.

“If it had been recommended then for our children to get their flu shots, we would have gotten them,” Joe said. “I got a flu shot. My wife got a flu shot when she was pregnant. But at that time, our kids had not been vaccinated. Reflecting on this now, it shouldn’t have happened.”

The Lastingers and others families who lost their children to the flu became advocates for children and formed Families Fighting Flu. Joe and Jen are among the founders of the group and remain board members to this day. They fought for universal flu shot recommendations and advocated for CDC to expand the recommendations for all children to receive flu shots. The expansion of the recommendation was huge because now flu shots are covered by many insurance companies.

Much has been done over the past 10 years, but Joe knows more needs to be done because children still die every year due to the flu and usually because those kids didn’t receive a flu shot or a flu nasal spray. He knows parents and children are busy, but Joe says to learn from what happened to his own family – get the flu shot.

The Lastingers tell their story today in hopes that people will get immunized against influenza. They’ve appeared on national shows like Good Morning America and Anderson Cooper 360. They have received cards and letters from people all over the world thanking them for telling their story.

Although nothing can take away the pain of losing their daughter, the Lastingers do take comfort knowing that Emily’s story may save the lives of other children.

“We think about our daughter all the time,” Joe said. “She was here for such a brief time and didn’t have the impact on the world she probably would have had. Who knows what she might have done with her life. We try to make a difference and hope that it makes a positive impact on the world like we think Emily would have made if she was still with us. I do feel like we’ve made a difference. I would love to see 100 percent of kids in our country have the flu vaccine and have 0 children die of the flu. We aren’t there yet, but I think we can get there.”

Perhaps the biggest impact their older daughter’s death made was preparing the Lastingers to deal with Alea’s diagnosis of leukemia when she was almost the identical age of Emily.

“I remember one of the doctors saying you are so calm,” Joe said. “In retrospect, we were. We thought if Alea does have cancer, at least this time we know we can do something about it. It shaped our attitude in such a positive way. Yes, cancer was horrible and painful. But it wasn’t the worst thing that happened to our family. We knew we could survive this.”

Today, Alea is doing great. She’s in the gifted and talented program at her school and playing in multiple sports at a high level.

The Lastingers have battled two diseases in their lifetime and although flu took the life of one of their daughters, they aren’t giving up on the fight.

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