Christy Pugh and David Splan never thought that a simple runny nose and fever would lead to their 6-year-old daughter’s death.
Pugh and Splan, both 37, are working to raise awareness about pediatric flu after their daughter, Emma Splan, died from complications of the virus on Feb. 18 — just months after she had gotten the flu shot.
“It makes no sense. She was vaccinated. She died. It shouldn’t have happened, but it did,” Pugh, of Norwalk, Connecticut, tells PEOPLE, adding that her daughter was otherwise “healthy.”
“We did everything right. Every one of her doctors did everything right.”
On Feb. 13, Emma returned from school with a runny nose and a slight fever, Pugh says. Pugh and Splan took Emma to the doctor where she was diagnosed with the flu. But due to a shortage of Tamiflu, doctors did not give her the medicine.
The family returned home where Emma’s health seemed to improve. Pugh says she and Splan kept Emma home from school and all seemed to be well, until about three days later.
“She really wasn’t that sick … then Friday night we went to bed and at about 12:30 a.m. she woke up and started throwing up,” Pugh recalls, noting that she and Splan thought the “random” throwing up may have been food poisoning.
“On Saturday she kept throwing up so we took her back to the doctor. They gave us anti-nausea medicine. But when we went back home she kept throwing up and I thought, ‘Something’s not right,’ ” Pugh tells PEOPLE.
She took her daughter to the Stamford Hospital’s pediatric emergency department where “things went real downhill.” She was barely coherent as doctors gave her medication.
Doctors could not determine exactly what was wrong with Emma, so they directed the family to take her to Yale New Haven Hospital.
“It was beyond terrifying. It was chaos. I was throwing up in a trash can,” Pugh says of her time with Emma at the Stamford hospital. “My anxiety was through the roof. I was terrified. I was pacing the room. I was completely beyond freaked out. Emma wasn’t a sickly kid.”
Emma seemed to improve during the ambulance ride to the Yale hospital, she was laughing and playing. Pugh and Splan weren’t expecting what happened next.
“We got up to Yale, she’s talking and sitting up. She looked so much better. My husband and I gave her hugs and kisses and were telling her that when we leave we’re gonna do all this fun stuff,” Pugh says, adding that she believed Emma would be okay.
“Then she coughed and she died. We didn’t know what was going on. They started doing CPR. My husband and I were in the room watching the whole thing. They called it, and that was it. She was gone. The whole thing was beyond horrible. It was horrific. It took us hours to leave the room. We were just sobbing and pleading with the doctors to please try anything else.”
The weeks after Emma’s death were difficult for the couple, with Pugh unable to sleep in the family’s home for days. An autopsy revealed that the flu virus had found its way into Emma’s heart, and she died from myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle that reduced her heart’s ability to pump, according to the Mayo Clinic.
As time passed, Pugh and Splan decided to use Emma’s story to raise awareness about pediatric flu and to encourage everyone to get the flu shot.
“A lot of people wonder why we’re recommending the flu shot even though it didn’t work for us. But every time you get in a car you still get a seat belt. Why not stack the deck in your favor. Losing a child is the worst and I don’t want anybody else to feel like they could’ve done something more to save their child. We did everything right. We just weren’t lucky.”
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Pugh launched Emma’s Plan, to support causes close to Emma’s heart, including animal welfare, art programs, and to provide funds for children struggling in various ways. Pugh says her efforts help ease the pain of the loss, and carrying on Emma’s name has become her purpose.
“She was such an amazing kid. She was polite. She was the kid who would go sit with another kid who maybe didn’t have a friend,” Pugh recalls. “She had the self confidence to just walk up to people, like, ‘Hi, do you want to play with me? I’m Emma!’ ”
According to the CDC, the best way to prevent flu is with a flu vaccine. Some children 6 months through 8 years of age require two doses of the flu vaccine. Children getting vaccinated for the first time, and those who have only previously gotten one dose of vaccine, should get two doses of the vaccine this season. All children who have previously gotten two doses of vaccine (at any time) only need one dose this season.
The second dose should be given at least 28 days after the first dose. The first dose “primes” the immune system, according to the CDC, while the second dose provides immune protection. Children who only get one dose but need two doses can have reduced or no protection from a single dose of flu vaccine.