Flu killed my healthy 16-year-old daughter, get the vaccine, doctor warns

Dr. Cesar Termulo with his daughter, Teresa

This opinion piece appeared in Today. Read more here.

As a pediatrician, Dr. Cesar Termulo, 53, treats many children sick with the flu during the winter season. When his 16-year-old daughter, Teresa “Reese” Termulo, came down with the flu in early January 2020, it seemed like a typical case, but he was shattered when she died within a day of being diagnosed after developing complications. As flu cases rise, Termulo, who practices at Parkland Health in Dallas, Texas, urges people to get the flu vaccine and warns parents to be vigilant for symptoms. He shares his story with TODAY.com.

When people think the flu is a harmless runny nose, they’re wrong. It can cause death.

My daughter, Reese, had absolutely zero health issues. She had no chronic illnesses. She was completely healthy.

She was on her high school dance team and in the top 10% of her high school class. We had already started visiting colleges. She told me she was planning on becoming a physician as well.

The morning after she was diagnosed with the flu, I said “Reese, you’re going to get better.” Those were the last words that I ever told her.

Her symptoms started in the morning of January 9, 2020. She had a fever and a cough at school, so as soon as the school called, we brought her into my office and she tested positive for the flu. We started her on oseltamivir, or Tamiflu, an antiviral medication.

She felt a little bit tired so she went home to rest. But she was still doing her homework, chatting with friends, doing Snapchat and all those things that a regular teenager does.

The next morning, I asked her, “Reese, how are you feeling?” and she said her chest hurt. She had this pain under her ribs, which is muscle pain from coughing a lot.

I knew you can die from the flu, and usually it’s caused from a superimposed bacterial pneumonia after getting influenza.

The first thing as a pediatrician and a father that I’m going to do is to check her lungs, and her lungs were completely clear. I didn’t hear any signs of pneumonia. No things like wheezing or decreased breath sounds. She wasn’t breathing fast. She didn’t have symptoms that would tip me off that death was imminent.

Reese stayed home from school that day and my wife was taking care of her. They prayed the rosary. My wife wanted to read her something and the first thing that came up on her phone was this Bible verse talking about how all the time we have on Earth is a treasure.

Later that morning, Reese went back to bed and my wife went down to make her some soup. When she came back up, Reese had stopped breathing.

My wife tried to administer CPR and called 911, then me. I rushed home and when I arrived, the EMS workers were loading Reese into the ambulance. One of them said, “We can’t get her heart rate on her.”

In the emergency room, they knew that I was a doctor so eventually I was able to see them working on her. It was horrific and I knew she didn’t look alive anymore. She was pronounced dead at the hospital.

After an autopsy, the official cause of death was that Reese had the flu and superimposed strep A pneumonia that was found in her lungs.

When we did a test for strep the day before, it was negative. But the group A strep spread into her blood and was even found in her brain. She had pneumonia that caused sepsis and overwhelmed her system. That caused her heart to stop.

You can get the flu and if you happen to get a superimposed pneumonia, it can be sudden death. My daughter died within a day of being diagnosed with the flu.

Many people asked whether it was COVID, but there hadn’t been any cases yet of COVID in the U.S. then and COVID cannot kill a child that quickly.

People think the flu is a runny nose, a cough or a fever, but it’s more than that. Flu can be pneumonia. In kids, flu can cause febrile seizures. In kids with asthma, it can cause asthma attacks. It can even cause encephalopathy and death.

Reese got the flu vaccine in December 2019, but the vaccine that year did not cover influenza B/Victoria, which is the strain of flu that fatally killed her.

I still urge people to get the flu shot even though it didn’t work for my daughter. The analogy I make is: Would you drive 80 miles per hour without wearing a seatbelt? It’s illogical even though seat belts don’t always save you from death. In the same way, it’s illogical to not take the flu shot. It’s not 100% effective, but if it can reduce the chance of death if you do happen to get this superimposed pneumonia, you should take it.

As soon as you have a high fever during flu season, just do the flu test. It’s easy to do.

If it’s the flu, you need to start Tamiflu within the first two days. That’s when it’s going to be most effective.

One thing I realized as a doctor is that even though I did everything you’re supposed to do, I can’t control death.

I’m still recovering after Reese’s passing. Every moment we have is precious. Our life is temporary — it could be taken at any moment.

By Dr. Cesar Termulo and A. Pawlowski

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