'It was unthinkable': Mom warns about flu after her teen daughter's sudden death

Meghan Holohan

On February 2, Colette Giovanniello planned to take her twin daughters, Katie and Danielle, then 15, to a yoga class as part of their birthday celebration weekend. Katie woke up feeling sick and asked to skip. Five days later, she died of complications from influenza.

“It was all so sudden,” Giovanniello, of Leesburg, Virginia, told TODAY. “I didn’t ever think I would have to take my daughter — who is 16 — off life support from the flu. It was unthinkable.”

Giovanniello is sharing Katie’s story to encourage others to treat the flu with the attention it deserves.

“Getting a flu shot, it is important. But when flu happens, look at the symptoms closer. I would tell families, moms, dads, educate your whole family on the severity of the symptoms,” she said. “I want to raise awareness of how serious the flu is.”

Because of the dominant strain of flu circulating this year, it's been one of the worst flu seasons for children and young people in at least a decade. On Friday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 105 pediatric deaths, the highest number since the 2009 swine flu pandemic.

A cough ends with serious complications

The tragedy in the Giovanniello home started on that Sunday when Katie woke with a slight cough. She asked her mom to go to the doctor, an unusual request for the fun-loving, generous and kind teen, who never seemed to get sick.

“She was a pretty healthy little girl. She never complained or hardly missed school," Giovanniello said.

They visited a local walk-in clinic where a blood test confirmed that Katie had influenza B and doctors prescribed an antiviral medication. When they returned home, Katie rested and drank fluids, as she'd been instructed. But on Tuesday, Giovanniello began to worry when Katie crawled into bed with her.

“I was extra nurturing because she really needed me," she said. "In my mind, I was doing everything that I could.”

Katie simply seemed listless and wasn’t coughing so Giovanniello thought she was improving. By Wednesday, though, Katie wasn’t drinking and when she tried helping Katie bathe, the teen collapsed onto the floor. Again, Katie slept with her mom who watched over her daughter throughout the night.

“We were sleeping close and I was listening to her breathing. I was up all night, feeling her head. She was clammy, but did not have a temperature,” Giovanniello said. “She wasn’t responsive.”

Thursday morning she took Katie to the hospital where doctors did a scan of her brain. The results were devastating.

“That’s when they said she doesn’t have any brain function,” Giovanniello said. “She was gone.”

While Giovanniello is still waiting for autopsy results, doctors told her Katie died of complications related to the flu.

“They said she had gone septic because of the flu,” she explained. “She had an infection in her body that was so severe that it just shut down her organs.”

Sepsis is one of the reasons flu can be deadly, said Dr. Dan McGee, a pediatric hospitalist at Helen DeVos Children's hospital, who did not treat Katie.

"Sepsis really is kind of a hot mess, when your immune system ... goes berserk," he told TODAY. "You actually end up with a suppressed immune system and when that happens then you can get failure of various organs, like the heart, liver and kidneys."

It can be hard for people to detect when their children develop sepsis because the symptoms are so subtle and mimic how some children behave when sick: listless and feverish.

"If you have a child that is acting really out of it, is not responsive and is unable to take down any fluids at all then that that would be a time when you should be suspicious," he said.

And, sepsis can happen so quickly it is hard for people to receive treatment to slow it.

"Overwhelming sepsis can take a matter of hours. That's the scary part," McGee said. "We don't know why it happens to more often to some people."

While it can be fatal, hospitals do have interventions that help.

"If it is recognized early enough, it can be treated," he said.

Coping with loss

Giovanniello still can’t believe that her daughter's illness and death occurred so quickly.

“It is shocking,” she said. “I am getting the word out for others. I would really like to help with awareness.”

Giovanniello and her daughters, Danielle, 16, and Nicole, 17,are grateful for the support they received since Katie’s death. A friend set up a Go Fund Me, which is helping with all the unexpected costs. And, Katie’s friends have been sharing memories with Giovanniello, which provide some comfort as she grieves.

“Katie was unbelievably loved,” Giovanniello said. “She touched the hearts of so many people.”

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TODAY, product courtesy of merchant site