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Your Healthy Family: A flu shot is like battle armor for your immune system

Posted at 1:49 PM, Oct 16, 2019
and last updated 2019-10-17 09:30:15-04

COLORADO SPRINGS — In this Your Healthy Family, we’re following up on Stephen Vogan’s story (Colorado Springs Family almost loses healthy son to the flu) – a Colorado Springs boy whose bout with the flu could have had tragic consequences. Two years ago, when Stephen’s family decided he should skip getting a flu shot because of past allergic reactions to the vaccine, Stephen ended up suffering a severe case of influenza. The illness put him in the intensive care unit at UCHealth Memorial Hospital.

His mom, Jenny, says she felt helpless having to watch the virus run its course. “I remember them saying ‘we can't fight the flu, all we can do is support him while his body fights the flu.’ That was really terrifying to know not only is he sick, but he I could lose my son this quickly from a virus. I had no idea that it could be that severe.”

Stephen's stay at Memorial was about a week and a half while his body worked to fight off the flu. Stephen says he only remembers the last few days of his stay when he finally began turning the corner. “I was ready to get out. I remember the last day my mom was trying to tell me to breathe really deep, so that I could get out faster. If they saw that I was breathing well then they would let me out.”

The Vogan family says they learned the importance of a flu shot - a lesson Dr. Ian Tullberg, medical director of urgent care for UCHealth in southern Colorado, stressed to me before I had even learned about Stephen's story.

Dr. Tullberg says getting your flu shot isn't just about whether you get the flu or not. “You might not be doing this for you. You might be able to carry this (flu virus) and maybe it acts like a common cold to you. You could possibly pass it along to someone who would love to take the flu shot who can't. Maybe a little child that has cancer and is undergoing chemotherapy and they're not able to get a flu shot. Maybe some other kid that is allergic to the flu shot and if they get the flu, they might end up in the hospital.”

Jenny says in her experience, “One of the hardest things about preventative medicine is you never know what would have happened if you hadn't done something. I feel like I got a window into that because I have six people in my family, five were vaccinated, one was not, and he ended up in the ICU.”

Because of his allergy to raw eggs, Stephen now gets his flu shot through a local allergy clinic and he has to endure more than most of us to be vaccinated.

Stephen explains: “This year I had to get five smaller doses of the flu shot. Every 12 minutes they would give me a new shot, plus three needle pricks in the arm so they could test me and test my reactions. After those, I started swelling and then I woke up the next morning and my arms were big and red and swollen; they were also pretty itchy. It took a couple of days for that to die down, but now I don't have any swelling or any redness or itchiness in my arms.”

As tough as that was, Stephen says: “I would rather do that, then get the flu again.”

Jenny says, “It's important for people who don't have a problem (with the flu shot) to protect their families, or members of the community who are not able to get flu shots.”

Jenny says this lesson taught her family a valuable lesson. “Don't underestimate it. Before this experience I had always thought that if you get the flu, it's not that big a deal. You'll be stuck being sick for a couple days and that stinks but it's not a big deal. After seeing what he (Stephen) went through, somebody who's low-risk, he's not old, he doesn't have any underlying conditions, and he's not a baby. To see how it took a healthy child and put him in the ICU within 48 hours was shocking to me.”

So if you’re thinking about not getting the flu shot because you never get the flu, Dr. Tullberg urges you to think of the people around you. “Even walking down the street you don't know who you're going to come in contact with. You don't know if a person is going to be undergoing any kind of cancer treatment, or they may have HIV, or something else that puts them at a huge risk. You have no idea who you come into contact with, so don't just do it for yourself, do it for your community.”

Stephen is now a big believer in the vaccine. “I would say it's a good idea to get it (flu shot). Even if you're not 100% protected from the flu with the flu shot, it's still a protection. It's kind of like going into a war without any armor on. If you get the flu shot it's some kind of armor, even if it's not like the greatest -- it's still something that will help you out.”

And Jenny says, as the old saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. “Sometimes children do die even with great care, because they can't fight the flu. The best thing we can do is to prevent it.”

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