A 10-year-old girl from Colorado is in the pediatric ICU as she fights the flu and a pneumonia diagnosis that has left her on a ventilator.
Kristie Richardson says her 10-year-old daughter, Keyona, came down with a mild cough and fever on Wednesday, January 31, which caused her to be sent home from school early. Richardson took the fifth-grader to a local emergency room, where she was diagnosed with pneumonia, which the family later learned was a complication of Keyona contracting the H1N1 influenza virus (sometimes called “swine flu”). Doctors gave Keyona antibiotics and let her return home, but later that night, Richardson noticed her daughter’s difficulty breathing.
“I was just laying in bed with her that night and noticed she was breathing really fast,” Richardson, 36—a school counselor in Aurora, Colorado—tells PEOPLE. “Her activity level was totally fine, we were laughing and joking, but she was just breathing really fast, and I just felt like something wasn’t right.”
They returned to Children’s Hospital Colorado that night, Keyona’s left lung collapsed by the next morning. ICU doctors intubated Keyona on Thursday afternoon to help with her breathing and placed her in a medical paralysis. Things appeared stable into the evening as Keyona’s father, Corey, went home to feed the family pets and Richardson fell asleep on the couch in her daughter’s hospital room. But Richardson soon awoke into a chaotic scene.
“When I rolled over, there were 20 people in the room,” Richardson recalls. “They said Keyona’s oxygen was plummeting, even with the intubation, and her right lung had given out.”
Doctors told Richardson they needed to move quickly to place Keyona on an EXMO (Extracorporeal membrane oxygenation) machine to support her failing respiratory system.
“I asked if we could wait for Corey to get back,” Richardson says, “and the doctor said they didn’t think they would be able to keep her alive that long—and I just started crying.”
The respiratory therapists worked hard to clear the “sticky and thick” fluid in Keyona’s lungs, and Richardson says they “pounded on her little chest” to get it to break up.
“Corey and I both sat there literally bawling our eyes out holding each other and watching our daughter,” she says. “At that point, she was just lifeless.”
Since being placed on the ECMO machine, Keyona’s health has steadily rebounded with the help of “heavy duty” antibiotics, her mother says. On Tuesday, doctors were optimistic enough with her progress to remove her from the machine and place her on a ventilator.
The flu season has been putting a strain on hospitals around the country this season, and the Centers For Disease Control estimates more than 14,000 Americans were hospitalized with the virus since October. The flu becomes increasing lethal when it leads to pneumonia, as it sometimes does. According to the CDC, the flu and pneumonia combination was the eighth leading cause of death in 2016.
The family recently set up a donation page on Meal Train to help with expenses. Though she is unable to speak, Keyona has given her parents frequent thumbs up. But, as Richardson says, being on a breathing tube has dampened her spirits.
“She’s sad today,” Richardson says. “That’s what she keeps telling me, that she’s sad.”
Though Keyona received the flu shot during the weeks before contracting H1N1, Richardson wants parents to still remember the importance of getting their children (and themselves) vaccinated.
“If you haven’t got the flu shot, it’s not too late,” she says. “And watch your kids—if they are showing signs of respiratory issues, take them in, either it’s an urgent care, anywhere, let someone put eyes on them because this goes so fast.”
Richardson says she is fortunate to have brought Keyona back into the ER when she did.
“Had we not brought her back in, we’ve been told she probably would have died in her sleep,” she says. “When her lung collapsed, if we would have let her go to sleep, we would have probably found her in respiratory failure and probably would have never woke up.”
The last major flu epidemic in the U.S. was the 2009 swine flu, which caused over 270,000 hospitalizations and over 12,000 deaths. This season, the predominant strain is H3N2, which causes the worst outbreaks of the two influenza A viruses and two types of influenza B viruses.
The CDC recommends the flu vaccination, which can lessen the chance that someone catches the virus by 10 to 60 percent (though it doesn’t guarantee that someone will not catch the flu). They also recommend washing your hands throughout the day, contacting your medical provider and not going to work or school if you feel symptoms, getting adequate rest and staying hydrated.