The family of a 12-year-old girl from California was told by doctors she had the flu—but when they found out otherwise just days later, it was already too late.
A day after Alyssa Alcaraz was sent home early from Green Acres Middle School due to an illness, her family took her to local Kaweah Delta Urgent Care in Visalia, California, where doctors diagnosed the seventh-grader with influenza. Alyssa was given ibuprofen, cough syrup (though she didn’t have a cough) and nausea medication to ease her vomiting, and was told to return home to rest.
Her mother, Keila Lino, says at that point, nothing seemed out of the ordinary.
“She was very healthy, and just out of nowhere she got sick,” Lino tells PEOPLE. “She’s been sick with the cold and flu before, so it was just one of those things that didn’t seem like anything new to us.”
But even with a few days of rest at home, Alyssa’s health deteriorated rapidly, and she was having difficulty breathing and had a poor appetite.
“It was just so rapid,” Lino recalls. “Everything was just so sudden.”
With Alyssa’s health in jeopardy, the family rushed her back to urgent care where a physician discovered her oxygen levels were dangerously low. Alyssa was then taken to Kaweah Delta Medical Center, and it was there that Alyssa went into cardiac arrest as doctors tried to test her for meningitis.
Within hours, on the afternoon of Dec. 17, Alyssa died.
Days after her passing, just as the family prepared for her memorial, they discovered that officials attributed Alyssa death to cardiac arrest and septic shock after a strep blood infection entered her bloodstream. The doctor’s initial diagnosis of influenza was wrong.
“I was shocked, it was just mixed emotions. I thought finding out what it was would offer come closure of some kind,” Lino says. “Once we found out what it was, I was just shocked that something so simple took my baby.”
Typically, if caught early, a strep infection can be treated with antibiotics.
“I was angry, all they needed to do was some blood work and an antibiotic and she would have been fine,” Jeremy Alcaraz, Alyssa’s father, tells PEOPLE. “This wouldn’t have happened.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, each year, more than 1.5 million Americans get sepsis, leading to some 250,000 deaths. Sepsis occurs when immune chemicals used to fight an infection are released into the bloodstream, causing inflammation throughout the body, according to the National Institute of General Medical Sciences. Symptoms include breathing difficulties, low blood pressure, mental confusion and a fast heart rate.
Alyssa’s mother says that just days before she became ill, she was happy and healthy, having just sung in a Christmas concert with her school’s choir.
“She was very outgoing, she was the clown in the family. She was always happy, always singing in the car, in the house, just a really bubbly girl,” she says. “Alyssa was smart, you never saw her in a bad mood, you never had to be on top of her about doing her chores or homework. She was just a joyful little girl.”
As of today, the parents say they have not heard a response from Kaweah Delta Medical Center concerning the misdiagnosis at their urgent care center. Though they haven’t sought legal action as of yet, Jeremy Alcaraz says he may look into getting a lawyer to press doctors around the country into changing policies.
“They’re just acting like nothing happened. She was only 12 years old, she had a long life to live, who knows what she could have been when she grew up?” Jeremy says. “We don’t know, and we’ll never know now.”
With flu season in high gear across the country, California has seen at least 27 people younger than 65 die from influenza since October. The flu does share similar symptoms with strep infections, such as fever, fatigue and a loss of appetite.
“I want parents to push doctors to do more testing,” adds Jeremy. “Nobody knows their children better than parents. You know your child better than anyone.”
Members of the family have opened a GoFundMe page to help pay for related expenses, and nearly 117 people have raised more than $7,000 to support the family.
“We take it day by day, it’s hard, everything about her we miss. I cry every day, just random times,” Lino admits. “I remember things she would do or say, or just driving around town—the memories are just hard. I’m just trying to stay strong for the other three that we have.”
Yet, they feel comforted by the hope their daughter’s story may help other parents when their children show flu-like symptoms.
“My daughter said she always wanted to be famous,” Jeremy says, with aches in his voice. “Well, this is her chance, and she’s a hero. She’ll save many lives.”