For bubbly Va. 6-year-old, swine flu's attack came quick and strong

Heaven Skyler Wilson was 6 years old when she died after contracting the H1N1 2009 flu. Hers was the first death in the state of Va. of a perfectly healthy individual. Here is a segment of Heaven's memorial video provided by her family.
By Brigid Schulte
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 20, 2009; 2:25 PM

JETERSVILLE, VA. -- On Wednesday, Oct. 7, 6-year-old Heaven Skyler Wilson dragged herself off the school bus that dropped her in front of her home on a rural road in Jetersville, just south of Richmond. The little girl, who had never had so much as an ear infection in her life, was pale and feverish and complained of an upset stomach.

The next day, Heaven's grandmother, Pat Sparrow, took her to a nearby clinic. Heaven, usually a bright, bubbly girl with blond pigtails, dimples and effusive energy, had a sore throat and a 103-degree temperature. The doctor swabbed her for the flu, and the test was positive.

It was just something going around, Sparrow said she was told. The doctor told Sparrow to take Heaven home, give her Tylenol and chicken broth, and let her rest.

By the next morning, Heaven couldn't breathe. Sparrow called 911.

"How does she sound?" Sparrow said the dispatcher calmly asked.

Sparrow's panicked husband held the phone to the child's heaving lungs. "This is how she's breathing! Will you get here now?"

He scooped the child in his arms and rushed across the lawn to meet the ambulance. By the time they arrived at Chippenham Hospital in Richmond about 30 minutes later, Heaven's face was blue. Emergency room doctors intubated her and put her on a respirator.

Two weeks later, on Oct. 21, ravaged with double pneumonia and a staph infection that deprived her brain of oxygen, Heaven was disconnected from the respirator. She lived for four minutes.

At 11:18 p.m., Heaven died in the arms of her mother, Sara Wilson. "You never heard such an awful scream from someone who loved her child so much," Sparrow said, her voice shaking.

Flu's young victims

This year's swine flu is, by official standards, a "mild to moderate" pandemic. As in every year, with every seasonal flu, people get sick. Some are hospitalized. And some die. But it is the seemingly random deaths of healthy, young people such as Heaven that are driving much of the fear around swine flu.

With seasonal flu, 90 percent of the people who die are older than 65; most of those victims are older than 85. The worst outbreaks of seasonal flu are usually reported in nursing homes. But with this year's H1N1 strain, the demographics are reversed. Now, most of those dying are younger than 65, the worst outbreaks are in schools and the highest hospitalization rate is among children younger than 4.

Forty to 150 children die from the seasonal flu every year. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently said that it had vastly underestimated the number of children who have died from swine flu. The number of pediatric deaths had previously been reported to be 129. Now, the government estimates that 300 to 800 children died between April 1 and Oct. 17. During that period, 14 million to 34 million Americans came down with swine flu, the CDC said.

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