Losing daughter turns mom into flu shot crusader

2-year-old Gianna's memory lives on in the many ways her family shares her story

Flu shot advocate Angie Wehrkamp sits at a coffee shop table with windows in the background and two family photos setting on the table.

It’s easy to think of your young child’s flu shot as just another thing on the “parenting safety”  checklist. It might fall somewhere between making sure they buckle up every time they get in the car, and making sure their hot dog gets cut up so they don’t choke.

It’s also easy to think of the flu shot as kind of optional: convenient if your child already has a doctor’s appointment. But otherwise, something you hope to get around to sometime this winter. And if you don’t, well, you’ll try to be more on top of it next year.

After all, it seems like you always know someone each year who gets the flu — the respiratory virus, not the “stomach bug.” Yes, they complain they were really exhausted and couldn’t do anything for a week or so. But whenever you do hear of a flu death, isn’t it usually a senior, or someone who had other health issues?

Actually, no. Anyone, at any age, in any state of health, can die from influenza.

To realize how serious, and personal, the flu can get takes only one short conversation with a mom whose healthy, spunky 2-year-old daughter died less than 48 hours after coming down with her first flu symptoms.

That mom describes with passion her newfound mission in life to try to help prevent other parents from going through the same tragedy her family did.

Listening, you find yourself hoping she will succeed at making a huge difference. You also feel pretty sure you’ll never forget her daughter’s name and story — a sign that her other mission is already succeeding.

Gianna ‘ruled the roost’

When Gianna Wehrkamp was born in 2012 in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, she brought sass, fearlessness, freedom, energy and her own brand of authority into the world with her, said her mom, Angie Wehrkamp.

Her brother, Ethan, 10 years older, welcomed this new presence who “ruled the roost,” Angie said.

He even got up in the middle of the night to change Gianna’s diaper and feed her. He’d tell his mom, “You can go back to bed. I know you’re tired.”

Other than a bout with RSV when she was about 4 months old, Gianna reached age 2-½ with no  health problems. The whole family enjoyed good health.

When the winter of 2014-2015 came, Angie and her husband, Jared, conveniently received their flu shots at work. Ethan received his easily at school. Less convenient was the idea of making a special appointment for Gianna’s flu shot.

Now, Angie said, “I wish that was something I could’ve checked off the list of knowing that I did everything I could.”

Find a provider: Pediatricians at Sanford Health

“We definitely really recommend the influenza vaccine every year, particularly in children,” said Sanford Health pediatrician Katie Larson. “We know that the flu can be a very serious condition for children.”

Swift sickness

One afternoon in early January 2015, Angie picked Gianna up from day care right after she woke up from a nap. She felt a little warm and was still a little groggy, but then again, she had just awakened. That evening, she had a low-grade, “barely a hundred,” fever, Angie said.

The next morning, Angie recalls Gianna woke up congested, raspy and “kind of croupy.” She took her to the doctor that morning, and Gianna started antivirals that afternoon. At home, her symptoms didn’t get worse. Angie used ibuprofen and Tylenol to treat her fever that day and patted Gianna’s back to comfort her sick child.

But “she didn’t make it through the night,” Angie said.

In less than two days, Gianna’s family had lost their vibrant and healthy daughter to influenza A.

She counts among at least 147 other children in the United States who died of influenza during that flu season, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Since 2004, when the CDC started tracking reported pediatric deaths each flu season, the number has ranged from 37 to 185.

No one can say for sure whether Gianna would have survived if she had had a flu shot that season. And when Ethan also got the flu soon after Gianna succumbed to it, “that was super scary,” Angie said. But after starting antivirals, he recovered and had no symptoms a week later.

New mission

Tragedy, especially when it involves the loss of a child, can change survivors dramatically. Angie discovered a motivation to reach out — to tell Gianna’s story in many ways. Especially to try to keep the flu from devastating another family.

  • Angie and her sister began “Gianna’s Trees.” People were encouraged, through social media, to plant trees all over the United States in honor of Gianna, with a goal of raising awareness of influenza.
  • Angie also started making and donating newborn hats to hospitals around the U.S., attaching Gianna’s story. This helps raise awareness for new parents about the importance of flu vaccinations. Infants can start receiving them at age 6 months.
  • Angie and her family wear bracelets bearing Gianna’s name and carry extras to share.
  • Angie went from never speaking in public to finding herself in front of local TV cameras or groups of people, overcoming her fears of public speaking to tell Gianna’s story.

Enlarge

Flu shot advocate Angie Wehrkamp wears bracelets on her wrist in honor of her daughter, Gianna.
Angie Wehrkamp wears, and passes out, bracelets that remember her daughter, Gianna.

Photo by Jane Thaden Lawson, Sanford Health

“At first it was really hard because there’s so much raw emotion that to be able to even talk about her without, you know, completely breaking down is really hard,” Angie said.

Experience, and the knowledge that she’s educating people, has helped her become more comfortable.

A large part of her mission now has come about through her online connections with other moms who lost children to the flu. First she connected with an Iowa mom whose daughter, close in age to Gianna, died the same season. As they met others, they formed a private Facebook group.

Part of Families Fighting Flu

Then Angie connected with Serese Marotta, chief operating officer of Families Fighting Flu and the mom of a son who died of the flu. The national nonprofit organization is made up of families who have experienced complications or loss from influenza, along other advocates, including health care professionals. Angie now serves on the board of directors for the group, adding Gianna’s story to the group’s website and educational materials. And Marotta serves as Angie’s mentor.

“The people at Families Fighting Flu were just so welcoming and really just wanted to take you in with open arms. And it was like, this is the place for me,” Angie said.

The CDC also recognized Angie Wehrkamp as a flu fighter with a recent interview published online among the CDC’s flu resources.

This fall and winter, Angie is busy bringing the efforts of Families Fighting Flu closer to home, as the national group partners with the Sioux Falls Area Immunization Coalition. The coalition aims to increase immunization rates and prevent a variety of diseases throughout the community.

Related: Flu shot FAQs: Myths and facts

The Immunization Coalition holds an annual conference, where health care professionals talk about resources and strategies to overcome people’s hesitancy to get vaccinated.

Helping parents understand

Dr. Larson has found that a simple discussion about the flu vaccine can help most hesitant parents accept it. If they have some misconceptions about the flu shot, she tries to meet them where they’re at and debunk the myths — including what exactly influenza is.

“If they have the flu, it means they have abrupt onset of a high fever, runny nose, cough, body aches, and then particularly in children, they can get some vomiting and diarrhea,” Dr. Larson said. “I recommend that they be evaluated, especially in that first 48 hours of getting the high fever.”

Another factor that can influence the flu shot decision is if someone received it in the past but still got the flu. Dr. Larson said in that event, the vaccination can lessen the severity of the illness.

“We have a lot of really powerful numbers that show that even if you get your flu shot and still get influenza, we can significantly reduce the risk of complications from influenza, and death. And those numbers are especially impressive in children.”

Those complications can include a number of medical conditions, from ear infections to pneumonia, dehydration and other secondary bacterial infections.

In addition to children, Dr. Larson said it’s important for caregivers of a baby younger than 6 months to get their flu shots. Other tips for trying to help avoid the flu include thorough hand-washing, covering your cough and avoiding large crowds.

In the 2018-2019 flu season, Dr. Larson cites a CDC estimate that the flu vaccine reduced the risk of having to go to the doctor or be hospitalized by 30% — and likely prevented up to 90,000 hospitalizations.

In the same season, she said, “we know that 80 percent of the children that died from the flu weren’t vaccinated.”

Inspiring others

At this year’s Immunization Coalition conference in October, Angie told Gianna’s story to the audience.

“If someone would’ve told me 10 years ago this is where your life is going to be, and this is the spin we’re going to put on it, no way,” Angie said. “No way would I have pictured myself at a conference speaking in front of 200 people for 45 minutes. I was frightened. But once I got up there, it was easy because it’s something that you’re passionate about.”

Angie said she can tell when people connect with her emotionally. “It feels amazing because I know I’m touching that person,” she said.

One person she touched at the conference was a doctor, who affirmed that she knew how important talking with parents about the flu vaccine is. But she told Angie that listening to her gave her renewed hope that doctors can make a real difference. Listening inspired her to want to educate and encourage parents even more.

Angie had passed along her passion.

“I didn’t just connect on a parental level,” Angie said. “I connected on a professional level, and I thought that was really awesome.”

It’s an example of Angie’s spreading influence in the fight against influenza.

Educating in day cares

With the coalition partnership, Angie aims to bring educational information about the flu vaccine into day cares. She wants to reach day care providers and parents as well as children through posters, handouts and social media graphics.

While Families Fighting Flu supplies materials to distribute, Angie’s task is not a simple one. Her goal is to sign up 50 day cares this flu season in Sioux Falls. Then she hopes to reach the same ones and more next year.

“People have just loved it,” Angie said of the providers she has supplied materials to already.

One provider she had met soon after Gianna’s death now has a child in her care with cancer. So to protect him from getting sick, the provider is requiring all children in her care to have flu vaccinations.

“I love that we have these posters. I am plastering them everywhere,” Angie said the provider told her. “I’m giving the parents all the information.”

Angie takes the opportunity to talk about Gianna and the flu vaccine anywhere she gets a chance. If kids are in a restaurant booth next to her family, for example, she’s thrilled to interact with them.

She hugs the kids and gives them toddler-sized bracelets about Gianna, telling them to wash their hands and help keep themselves safe from the flu.

Keeping Gianna’s memory alive through all of these efforts has helped Angie and her family cope with the loss.

“I think that’s one of the biggest fears, as parents of kids who have passed away, is that our children will be forgotten,” she said. “So to see other people talking and saying her name and remembering her sass and those kinds of things, that’s what carries us through.”

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Posted In Children's, Family Medicine, Immunizations

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