Joseph Marotta was only five-years-old when he lost his life to influenza (flu). After losing Joseph, his mother Serese became an active parent advocate in hopes of preventing others from losing a child to a vaccine-preventable disease.
Serese shares Joseph’s story below in her own words.
As parents, we do everything we can to protect our children. We buckle them into their car seats, make them wear their bike helmets, hold their hand while crossing the street, and even get them their recommended childhood vaccinations. But what about getting our kids the flu vaccine?
Sadly, flu vaccination rates for children are still too low. The 2019-2020 flu season was very bad for children with a high number of deaths and hospitalizations.
These statistics may not mean much to you, unless you or a loved one have had a personal experience with the flu. But they haunt me every day. As a mother who lost her healthy, five-year-old son, Joseph, during the H1N1 flu pandemic in 2009, I want to do everything I can to ensure no other child dies from flu.
Despite what many people may believe, influenza is not like the common cold. Influenza is a very serious and highly contagious disease that tends to develop quickly, especially in children. Influenza can also lead to hospitalization or death, even in otherwise healthy individuals. Every year in the U.S., approximately 20,000 children under the age of five are hospitalized, and on average, 100 children die each year from flu infection and its complications. According to the CDC, 80 to 90 percent of pediatric flu deaths over the past few years have been in unvaccinated children, many of whom were otherwise healthy.
As a mother, I have always tried my best to protect my kids, including getting them vaccinated against the flu every year. When my son Joseph was in kindergarten, he received his annual flu vaccine on September 26, 2009. Unfortunately, the H1N1 flu strain was just developing, and it was not included in the seasonal vaccine that year. On October 9th he threw up a few times and became increasingly lethargic. Our pediatrician suggested we take him to the local urgent care and upon arrival, they found his blood oxygen level to be very low. They immediately transported him to the local children’s hospital where a rapid flu test came back negative and he was eventually diagnosed with pneumonia.
Several days into his hospital stay, the doctors informed us that Joseph’s culture was growing influenza, which was likely H1N1, but not to worry—it was “just the flu”.
They started him on antiviral medications and over the next several days Joseph’s condition was relatively stable. Various specialists came and went; all of Joseph’s tests appeared normal and the doctors even began discussing his discharge.
All of that changed on the ninth day of our hospital stay.
Joseph’s blood pressure suddenly plummeted, and we were sent back to the ICU. The doctors couldn’t really figure out what was causing his low blood pressure, but they didn’t seem overly alarmed. More testing went on throughout the night, while I tried to distract Joseph with cartoons and discussions about his Halloween costume.
On October 18th, Joseph’s doctor explained that they wanted to put him on a ventilator because his heart and respiration rates were so high and his little body needed a rest. The doctor emphasized it was not a big deal, but Joseph would be unconscious while on the ventilator. I calmly called my husband, who was at home with our young daughter, and asked him to come to the hospital. Minutes later, while I was standing next to Joseph’s bed, he suddenly coded.
The next scene was like something on a TV show.
Doctors and nurses rushed into Joseph’s room. I backed into the hallway so they could do their job, but honestly, I had no idea what was happening. As the minutes ticked away, I began to realize that something was seriously wrong. I continued to wait outside Joseph’s hospital room and finally, the attending doctor came to me, sobbing, and asked me to follow her into Joseph’s room because she needed me to talk to him. Looking back, I think she thought if modern medicine couldn’t save this child, perhaps the sound of his mother’s voice could. I entered Joseph’s room and held his hand as the doctors and nurses continued to work on him. Finally, the doctor turned to me and said “I’m so sorry.”
My precious son lost his life to influenza that day, and my life was irrevocably changed as a result.
As awful as this sounds, my story is not unique. I have met many parents who’ve lost a child or had a child suffer serious medical complications as a result of the flu.
As a result of my loss, in 2010 I joined Families Fighting Flu (FFF), which is a national, non-profit organization composed of families whose children have suffered serious medical complications or died from influenza. There, my mission was to elevate the conversation around flu and raise awareness about the importance of annual flu vaccinations. Now, I work as the Director of Community Outreach & Advocacy at Vaccinate Your Family, where I continue to help support other families who’ve been personally impacted by a vaccine-preventable disease (including flu) and educate others about the importance of vaccination for children and adults. Through my advocacy work over the years, my goal has been to honor my son, Joseph, and all the other families that have been personally impacted by flu. By sharing our stories, we hope to prevent other families from having to endure the devastating effects of this serious disease.
The flu vaccine may not be 100 percent effective, (and no vaccine is), but it’s the best protection we have in our fight against influenza. It is estimated that if we were to increase flu vaccination by just 5 percent, we could prevent 800,000 illnesses and 10,000 hospitalizations. Together, we can all make a difference in the fight against influenza and help make sure that no child or family member is lost to something we can prevent!
View more stories from families affected by flu.