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'They said she was the sickest child in ICU': One mother shares her four-year-old's experience with the flu

Nora O’Hare shared how her daughter went from being ‘the picture of health’ to ICU within 48 hours.

Aralynn O'Hare caught the flu in 2018.
Aralynn O'Hare caught the flu in 2018.

This year for the first time, the flu vaccine is available free for children aged from two to 12 years. Here, Nora O’Hare recounts her daughter Aralynn’s life-threatening experience with the flu, and tells TheJournal.ie why she’s urging other parents to take advantage of the free vaccine.

“WHEN I SAY Aralynn was a healthy little girl, she would have been really healthy, and very rarely sick.”

In February 2018, Aralynn O’Hare caught the flu. She was four years old at the time and “a picture of health.” Within 48 hours, she was in the paediatric intensive care unit (PICU) in Crumlin Hospital.

How quickly things can change

“It was a Friday when I went to pick Aralynn up from Montessori. When she came out, she started complaining saying she felt a bit cold, which was unlike her,” says Nora. “She did a tonne of activities at that stage. So I kind of went, ‘oh you’ll be grand, put on a coat’ and didn’t think anything of it.”

After Montessori, Aralynn went swimming and played tennis, but Nora knew something was wrong when she didn’t want to go into the play centre afterwards. 

“We went home that evening and she started running a temperature. She hadn’t had a cough or a cold… nothing. My mother was staying that night and she said, ‘that’s a very high temperature, you should bring her straight to the hospital.’ And I thought my mam was overreacting at the time. I gave her Calpol, and her temperature came down a bit.”

“But during the night, she started breathing funnily. I thought it was croup, because my other little girl had croup a few times, so I was doing all the things you do for croup.”

unnamed (4) Aralynn with her sister Leonie and brother Theo. Source: Adrian O'Hare

The next morning, Aralynn got up and was looking for her breakfast – a sign that she was feeling better. However, her breathing had become irregular so Nora brought her to the GP. From there, she went straight into hospital. 

“By one o’clock on Sunday morning, she was being intubated because she had caught bacterial tracheitis, and her trachea was closing over,” says Nora. “We’re talking about a really, really short period of time.” 

“But at that stage, they still didn’t know that she had the flu. They thought, ‘we’ve caught this in time, now she’ll be grand.’ But then it all happened.”

‘It was like something out of a nightmare’

By Monday, Nora and her husband Adrian were told that they had a really sick child, and by Tuesday they were told she’d have to be flown to Sweden for access to an ECMO machine – a machine which provides support to people whose heart and lungs are unable to function adequately.  

They said her heart was starting to shut down. It was like something out of a nightmare. Even now as I’m talking to you, I’m nearly emotional thinking back on it.

“We signed all the forms and everything. The doctors told us there was a 50% chance that she would die, even when she went on ECMO. But even if she survived that, there was a very high probability she’d be left with severe brain damage going down to moderate brain damage and all the rest of it. So the chances that she’d come out perfect were very, very slight.”

“They said she was the sickest child in ICU. I think that they were trying to let us know how sick she was. I didn’t know at the time, but we were put in this butterfly room, which is right beside the ward. Afterwards, somebody told me that usually you’re only put there if they think your child isn’t going to make it.”

unnamed (2) Source: Adrian O'Hare

Trying one other option

Before Aralynn went to Sweden, her doctor suggested trying one more thing. 

“Dr Healy said we could try this filtration, like dialysis, where they take the blood out of your body and they oxygenate it and, they put it back in. And they did that. And it was a long struggle for her, but basically, she never ended up going to Sweden.”

After one month in ICU on a ventilator, Aralynn recovered enough to be sent to a ward. 

“In the wards then, all of her limbs had sort of wasted from that month in ICU, and her muscle. So she ended up in a wheelchair for a while, and at this stage they didn’t know the extent of her brain damage. They felt that she may have been brain damaged and that would affect her ability to speak and walk and all of the normal things, so we didn’t know what to expect.”

“I can remember they said to us that she had sustained some brain damage, called cerebral microbleeds, these tiny little beads all over her brain. She’s just very lucky that none of them were larger.”

After another month recovering in hospital and doing physiotherapy, Aralynn could go home.

“The worst part for her, I think when I look at it now, was that she couldn’t do what other children could. I remember her saying about her little sister, ‘she’s faster than me now mammy, I can only walk and she can run.’ She had to learn how to do things, how to climb, how to run – all these kind of things again.”

Aralynn today 

More than two years on, Aralynn is seven-years-old, in first class in school and thriving.

“If you met her, you’d see that you would never ever know that there was anything wrong with her. She still has damage to her lungs and she has to take a nebuliser morning and night but other than that, she’s perfect.”

unnamed (3) Aralynn with her siblings Leonie and Theo, and her mother Nora. Source: Adrian O'Hare

“If I had known that a child, a perfectly healthy child, could get that sick in 24 hours, there is no way that they would have not had the flu vaccine. I always thought, and maybe it was my own ignorance, that the flu was a long suffering process. I never thought it was like a sudden onset, that somebody could just go from being perfect and then 24 hours later be on a ventilator. I didn’t think that.”

If she didn’t have the flu, she wouldn’t have gotten bacterial tracheitis. 

“I thought that this killed elderly people, people who were already sick, children with underlying conditions. I didn’t know that somebody who was perfectly healthy, like Aralynn could be so unwell from it. She was skiing two weeks before. She was so healthy. I wouldn’t have thought it was possible.”

Screenshot 2020-10-21 at 09.53.41 Aralynn on her ski trip. Source: Adrian O'Hare

Dr Lucy Jessop, Director of the National Immunisation Office, highlights that children are more likely than adults to catch influenza: “It’s estimated that 20-30% of children develop influenza during each influenza season, compared to 5-10% of adults.”

“Flu in children can cause pneumonia, bronchitis, painful ear infections, croup and bronchiolitis,” she says. “Influenza can also make chronic diseases like serious heart disease or asthma worse.”

Today, Nora can’t stress enough the importance of vaccinating your child against the flu.

“Everybody who knows me, anybody who’s close to me, they all get their kids vaccinated against the flu. They would have known Aralynn and they would have known that she wasn’t some sort of delicate child. She was hearty and healthy.”

Children aged two to 12 are eligible to get the flu vaccine free of charge. Make an appointment with your GP or pharmacist for the free flu vaccine. Find out more about the flu vaccine for children here.

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