My Take: 20 years ago I lost my child to flu. You don’t have to lose yours

young girl who passed from flu

This letter to the editor appeared in The Holland Sentinel. Read more here.

My world turned upside down 20 years ago this week. On an average early February day in 2003, I lost my loving and talented daughter Alana to the flu. It didn’t seem possible then and some days, even two decades later, it still doesn’t seem real.

I’ve spent the last 20 years sharing Alana’s story to raise awareness about the dangers of the flu — and lifesaving opportunities to prevent it — because no family should live with the heartache ours endures every day.

I’ve told Alana’s story a thousand times: Our family spent the hours that day together playing games inside, eating ice cream sundaes and watching movies. Alana was only 5 years old; she was a little lethargic in the morning, but felt better as the day went on and didn’t show any real sign of being sick.

That night, though, she woke up with a 106-degree fever. The next hours were spent in an ambulance, in the hospital, and in consultations with doctors and nurses who worked around the clock to get her fever under control.

We didn’t know why she’d gotten so sick so quickly. When the doctor finally told us Alana had the flu, a wave of relief washed over me. We’ve all had the flu. I didn’t think it was a big deal.

When Alana’s physician finally got through to me, I crumbled. The flu is a big deal. Alana was struggling. There was swelling around her brain. She was experiencing additional complications. She was going to lose her life.

Less than 24 hours after we arrived, Alana passed away. Now, 20 years later, there are a lot of days when we still struggle to pick up the pieces.

There’s no good news when it comes to the flu, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t hope. 20 years ago, there wasn’t a pediatric flu vaccine widely available for children like mine. Today, there is.

Flu shots are available, they’re everywhere, and they’re effective.

I established Alana’s Foundation to help educate the public about the importance of yearly flu vaccinations and to make them available whenever and wherever we can. Our 100% volunteer-run organization works to prevent deaths caused by influenza, a vaccine-preventable disease, and to provide support for families whose child has died from any illness.

Tragically, that number keeps growing. This season alone 91 children have lost their lives to the flu across the United States, while far more have suffered serious illnesses.

We can save lives if we do the little things. The CDC now recommends that anyone over the age of 6 months old gets an annual flu shot. Michigan set a goal of 4 million doses this flu season, but we’re still more than a million shots away from meeting it.

That’s bad news with the worst of the flu season still to come. We typically see the season peak in February and March.

I miss Alana every day. I miss her singing. I miss her dancing. I miss the way she’d play with her siblings. I miss the way she’d light up a room. She keeps me going on the tough days, and she inspires me to do my best to help other families avoid the kind of tragedy ours has spent 20 years living with.

Flu shots save lives. Get yours — and get your children immunized — today.

Alana’s Foundation urges parents to get themselves and their children immunized today. They can schedule a flu shot with their local physician, at many local pharmacies, and at special immunization clinics across the state.

— Zachary is Alana’s dad and founder of Alana’s Foundation. Readers can learn more about Alana and about Alana’s Foundation online.

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You’ve got questions. That’s a good thing.

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