Like so many kids in school, Jill Promoli’s children caught some sort of flu bug in May of 2016 and it spread around the family.
Her oldest, Isla McGee, only had a fever for 24 hours before bouncing back, but the virus hit her 2-year-old twin bothers, Thomas and Jude McGee, too. Soon, Thomas was vomiting and Jude developed a low-grade fever. But, still, the boys seemed to have a mild case and Promoli planned a day of rest, fluids and a dose of acetaminophen.
“We had already dealt with this last week, we knew what this was,” Promoli, 37, of Mississauga, Canada, recalled. “Jude and Thomas were playing and laughing and it was a normal day.”
She put them down for a nap and when she went to rouse them, Jude didn’t wake. He wasn’t breathing and she rushed him to the emergency room, but it was too late. He was pronounced dead.
It had escalated so fast, the family was left stunned and heartbroken.
“We had no idea what was happening,” she told TODAY. “The only symptom he had was a low-grade fever.”
Promoli and husband Craig McGee were told Jude went into cardiac arrest, which killed him, and it just made no sense to them.
After four months, autopsy results came in and the parents learned more about what led to their boy's death.
“When the coroner called and said that Jude had died of influenza B, I had him repeat himself because I didn’t understand what he was telling me,” Promoli said.
“We would have thought, if it was the flu, we would have seen much more advanced symptoms, greater respiratory distress," she said. "We didn’t see anything like that. He was basically fine and then he suddenly wasn’t.”
Jude's death spurred Promoli to spread the word about the importance of vaccinations, good hygiene and staying home when sick.
“Maybe if flu prevention efforts would have been better in the community it would have stopped the flu from reaching our house and it would have protected Jude,” she said. “Everyone who gets the flu gets it from someone else … if there had been one person in that chain who had taken an extra step, maybe we would have Jude here now.”
In October 2016, Promoli started Jude for Everyone to raise awareness about the flu, the vaccine and other flu prevention efforts. Over the years, she's learned that many people don’t realize that flu is deadly.
“There are a lot of people who just don’t realize how serious the flu is," she said.
Dr. Dan McGee — a pediatric hospitalist at Helen DeVos Children's Hospital in Grand Rapids, Michigan, who did not treat Jude — said he wants people to be aware that the flu is not always just an inconvenience.
"Most people think it's just the flu, it is no big deal," he told TODAY. "In a lot of people, it is just a nuisance, but in some people it can be fatal."
Although Jude and his siblings received the flu vaccine in December 2015, six months before they became ill, it wasn't as comprehensive then as it is now.
Two types of flu exist in any given year: influenza A and B. The flu virus mutates, which is why the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that everyone 6 months and older receive a flu shot annually. Until recently, doctors tried predicting which of the two strains of influenza B would spread each year and put that into the vaccine. But, sometimes it was the wrong one.
"In a number of years for the flu vaccine the influenza B has not been the right strain," Dr. Dan McGee said. "Then someone got the brilliant idea of, 'Why don’t we put them both in?'"
The vaccine now protects against influenza A — which represents most cases of the flu — and both strains of influenza B, which "tends to be more severe."
Promoli wants people to get the vaccine — and take other precautions, too. Those who feel ill should stay home while they recover and properly wash their hands, along with any surfaces they touch, for example.
“The flu is preventable," she said. "There is no one guaranteed method of preventing the flu, but if we all take the steps, we can do our part to protect ourselves and each other."
Flu symptoms include:
- Sore throat
- Runny or stuffed nose
- Achy body
- Muscle soreness
- Vomiting or diarrhea, usually in children
Jude's brother Thomas is now 5 and Isla is 9. While it’s harder for Thomas to remember Jude, the family often shares stories about the funny, smart child who knew the difference between pentagons and hexagons and loved lions. When Jude first saw a dandelion and heard its name, he laughed and roared.
“He was just finding these things that you wouldn’t expect someone so little to put together," Promoli said. "He was full of joy."
Promoli hopes she can help other families avoid the pain they felt when their son died.
“It is the worst moment and the worst day of our lives. It is something that is never going to get better,” she said. “Maybe good can come of Jude’s death and prevent someone else from losing their loved one."