REAL LIFE

The flu almost killed my girl

When her daughter felt under the weather, Kerry-Anne never imagined she'd soon be watching her fight for her life
supplied

Kerry-Anne Baxter, 47, Sydney, NSW

Watching my daughter Rosie, then four, lying hooked up to a life-support machine, I couldn’t believe it was the same girl who’d been so full of life just weeks earlier.

But Rosie wasn’t suffering from a rare illness. She had the flu and it was killing her.

My husband Gary, 51, and I never thought it could be so dangerous. We hadn’t even known there was a vaccine available for children.

In June 2013, there was a flu outbreak at Rosie and her twin sister Ellie’s preschool – unfortunately we didn’t know at the time. Ellie was the first to show symptoms. ‘Mummy, I don’t feel well,’ she said tearfully. We were at her friend’s birthday party and instead of running around, Ellie just sat on my lap. When she refused to eat cake, I knew she was ill.

She had the flu and it was killing her.

‘I think you’ve just got a virus, darling. You’ll be better soon,’ I told her. But over the next couple of nights Ellie got seriously sick. Her temperature soared to 40 degrees and she was barely eating or drinking. She also had an awful cough that wouldn’t budge and paracetamol was having little effect.

Our GP quickly diagnosed Ellie with swine flu – it was no wonder that she had been so sick! Although we were shocked by the news, the doctor assured us plenty of fluids should see her on the mend.

Usually when one twin gets ill the other does too. So we weren’t surprised when Rosie showed some of the same symptoms the next day. Ellie was still quite unwell so Gary and I spent the next couple of nights trying to help our girls get better.

Rosie and Ellie before Rosie became unwell.
Rosie and Ellie before Rosie became unwell.

Usually when one twin gets ill the other does too. So we weren’t surprised when Rosie showed some of the same symptoms the next day. Ellie was still quite unwell so Gary and I spent the next couple of nights trying to help our girls get better.

Thankfully, Ellie’s temperature went down during the week but her sister just seemed to be getting worse. She could hardly speak and couldn’t keep her eyes open. ‘Surely she should be getting better by now?’ I fretted to Gary.

Concerned, we took her to emergency at the Royal North Shore Hospital. The doctors immediately gave her oxygen and a chest X-ray. Within minutes, people in white coats came rushing towards us. ‘We need to show you this,’ one stressed.

Within minutes, people in white coats came rushing towards us.

As I glanced at Rosie’s X-ray, doctors said the snowflake-like images on her lungs indicated she was suffering from extreme pneumonia. It had been caused by the flu. ‘She’ll be moved to a high dependency ward right away,’ one said.

Gary and I were stunned. How had the flu put our girl in intensive care? Although we understood Rosie was extremely sick, we were sure our brave battler would put up a good fight. But things got worse.

Rosie in hospital.
Little Rosie in hospital.

Gary and I watched in tears as Rosie deteriorated rapidly and was transferred to the Sydney Children’s Hospital. There, a doctor told us she was suffering from acute respiratory distress syndrome, a potentially life-threatening inflammation of the lungs.

Our little girl was breathing so fast, it was the equivalent of running a marathon for a week. ‘Putting her on life support might be her only hope,’ he gently explained. His words hit me hard. Our gorgeous girl was facing death.

As a machine worked to breathe for her, Rosie’s lungs were given a chance to rest. We kept a vigil by her bedside, talking to her and stroking her hair – anything to soothe our baby.

Our gorgeous girl was facing death.

My parents Jackie and Phil, both 72, and my sisters Jo, 44, and Jan, 41, had flown from the UK to help look after Ellie. On the second day, when I popped home to check on her, I received a call. It was Gary.

‘What’s wrong?’ I stammered. All I could hear was silence. My heart stopped. ‘What’s happened?’ I urged.
‘You have to get back here,’ Gary cried.

The doctors didn’t think Rosie would make it. We were told to say our goodbyes.

Back at hospital, the nurses had plaited Rosie’s hair and placed her favourite doll in her arms. Our girl looked so peaceful and serene. At least she wasn’t in pain…Jan snapped me out of it.

‘We’re going to get through this,’ she promised. ‘We’ve got to keep talking to her’.

Rosie in hospital 2
‘We were told to say our goodbyes.’ (Credit: supplied)

So we continued to chat to her, stroke her hair and play her favourite music. ‘Ellie can’t wait for you to come home,’ I said. ‘We all want that so much.’ Miraculously, Rosie slowly started to improve. Her chest X-rays started to clear up and she was finally able to come off life support.

Doctors were stunned. ‘She must have been a racehorse in a former life,’ one said. ‘She’s incredibly strong.’ Although she was out of danger, the drama wasn’t over. Because Rosie had been sick for over two weeks, she’d become addicted to the high doses of medication.

Watching her hallucinate was heartbreaking but again, our little girl battled on. Today, two years later, we count our blessings every day. Rosie has made a full recovery.

Gary, Rosie, Kerry-Anne and Ellie
Gary, Rosie, Kerry-Anne and Ellie (Credit: supplied)

I’m making it my mission now to stress the importance of getting children vaccinated against the flu. I’d love to see it become part of the kids’ immunisation program.

Some people are against vaccination, but I believe you have to do whatever it takes to protect your babies. If it can happen to my child, it can happen to yours.

Originally published in that’s life! issue 33 2015, cover date 20 August 2015.

Influenza

– In Australia, influenza causes 3500 deaths on average and roughly 18,000 hospitalisations each year.
– Healthy children under five are more likely to be hospitalised with flu complications than any age group. Nearly 1500 Aussie kids are admitted each year.
– Children can be immunised against the flu from when they’re six months old.
– Kids eight years old and under require two doses at least four weeks apart in the first year that they receive the vaccine.
– One dose is required for subsequent years and for children aged nine and over.
– The flu vaccine can be safely given to women during any stage of pregnancy, guarding the expectant mum and providing protection to the newborn bub for six months after birth.

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