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Losing My Baby to the Flu: An Interview with Mom Vira Cover

“I miss her. I wish she were here.”

On December 1, 2003, Vira Cover experienced what no parent should have to: the death of a child.

Just a week earlier, on Thanksgiving Day, Vira’s 23-month-old daughter, Elizabeth Terese Cover, caught the H1N1 strain of influenza and developed bilateral pneumonia. During the 2003-2004 flu season, 152 children in the U.S. died from flu. Elizabeth was one of them.

Vira shared her and Elizabeth’s story in an interview with the Colorado Children’s Immunization Coalition.

Elizabeth Cover

Tell us a little bit about Elizabeth and what it was like being her mom.

Being a mom is the greatest gift in life, and I was elated when Elizabeth was born. Elizabeth was our second child; our son was five when she was born. She would be 16 years old this year. From the moment she was born she was the most precious, sweetest baby. She didn’t cry unless something startling happened, like she fell or got scared. She was mild tempered, energetic, sensitive, bright and always very happy, and she adored people—especially her brother. 

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When we went on walks in her stroller, she’d wave at everyone we passed. We’d go to the local Cub Foods store almost every day to buy dinner and I remember there was a group of ladies in the deli who just loved her—she knew it, too—and they always had a cookie ready for her when we came. Elizabeth had the most sympathetic little heart, and as a mother that was so amazing to experience. Even in the short amount of time I had her with me, she brought so much joy, pleasure and light into my life and I was truly blessed.

 

When did you notice Elizabeth wasn’t feeling well, and what happened after?

It was Thanksgiving Day when we noticed Elizabeth wasn’t feeling well—she was not at all herself. She was lethargic and cranky, and she didn’t want to be touched which was very unusual; usually she was very cuddly. We were down in Colorado Springs with my in-laws and even though everyone kept telling me she would be fine, I felt very uncomfortable and I knew deep down something was wrong. I decided to take Elizabeth home to Denver to be near her doctor and so that she could be in her own bed. On our way home, I called her pediatrician and left a message, hoping to hear back after the holiday. When we got home, her fever suddenly broke and I thought things might be getting better, though she was still lethargic. Finally, her doctor called and advised me to get over-the-counter medication for Elizabeth. He said that unless her fever got to 104 degrees, I shouldn’t bring her in. Her fever was at 103.

I told my husband that unless she was doing much better the following day, I wanted to take Elizabeth in when he got home from work. At noon that day, Elizabeth and I were sitting on the sofa when she suddenly threw up. I noticed blood. I remember grabbing her immediately and running to the neighbors’ house for help. They called 911 and I started doing CPR on her. It was all such a blur. When the paramedics got there, they took me into another room in the house so that they could work on Elizabeth. I remember feeling so claustrophobic and trapped. They worked on her for what seemed like forever, and then they eventually came in and told me she had passed. My little Elizabeth was gone.  

They did an autopsy a while later. The coroner told us that Elizabeth had contracted the flu, H1N1 specifically, and that it had led to a complication called bi-lateral pneumonia. Her lungs had filled with blood.

Elizabeth was scheduled to have her next doctor’s appointment on December 22 and receive her next set of vaccines—including a flu shot. Just one month later, and she would have been protected.

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What made you want to speak up and become an advocate for the flu vaccine and immunization generally?

I can’t really put my finger on one thing, one turning point, that made me want to tell Elizabeth’s and my story and advocate for the importance of immunization. I think it was mostly just time. Meeting my fiancé Steven was also part of it. He is an incredible person and has given me such strong support; we have such a loving relationship, and his love has made me stronger and helped me realize that something positive can come from my story and my pain.

Sometimes I wonder what Elizabeth and I would be doing today if she were still with me. I wonder about school and dances and boyfriends—all those “what-ifs”—but that sort of wondering can take you into dark places. I’ve come to realize that instead of wallowing in that pain, I can create something positive out of it. Our story has a purpose, and that is to make a difference for other parents and their children. I hope that they will see how important it is to make sure their children are vaccinated because vaccines prevent illnesses, like flu, that can be deadly. No parent should have to lose a child to the flu or any vaccine-preventable disease and experience that violent heartbreak. Vaccines save lives, and we should let them.

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What advice would you give to someone who might think the flu is no big deal and getting a flu vaccine isn’t necessary?

I would tell them that it is very important because the flu can be very serious. My daughter died from complications of the flu, and every year children—and even otherwise-healthy adults—die from flu. Getting a flu shot every year means making sure you’re as protected as possible. No matter how effective the vaccine might be one year to the next, getting vaccinated (every year) offers some protection. Even if you do get the flu, the vaccine can help to reduce the severity of it and keep you out of the hospital. I would ask them why they would want to suffer, or want their child to suffer. Even if there’s only a small possibility of getting the flu, and even if the chances of complications or death are small, why would you take that chance?

I think there’s a new trend in our country of people not trusting professionals. When I was younger, we got vaccines because we saw firsthand how scary the diseases they prevented were; vaccines were saving lives. We listened to our doctors and trusted their judgment because they were the experts. I think it’s important to pay attention to your own health and make decisions that work for you, but it’s also important to make these decisions with your doctor—with their advice and expertise as a guide. I’m not trained in medical practice, so why would I make decisions about my health or my child’s health without someone who is? Vaccines are a huge success story. They’ve helped to reduce and even eliminate disease. They’re also tested and studied so heavily to make sure they’re safe. Not vaccinating is not worth the pain of losing a child to a disease that could have been prevented. If you have the chance to save your child’s life, you should take it.

Do you have any other advice for parents?

In the event that your child develops flu-like symptoms, contact your healthcare provider immediately. You can never be too careful. Also, educate yourself with sound scientific information. It could save your life or your loved ones’. 
During the 2017-2018 flu season, approximately 80,000 Americans died from the flu. In Colorado, 4,650 people were hospitalized from flu; the state reported one pediatric death.

Flu season is ramping up, and many sites are now offering this year’s flu vaccine. The CDC recommends that people get a flu vaccine before the end of October. Talk to your doctor about getting flu shots for your whole family to stay healthy and protected this flu season!

Additional resources:

Families Fighting Flu
“Flu” – Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
“Flu Symptoms and Complications” – Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
“Vaccine Effectiveness” – Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
Immunize for Good
“Influenza (Flu) in Children” – Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia

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