Flu Leaves 4-Year-Old Iowa Girl Blind; Colorado Officials Say It’s Not Too Late To Get Vaccinated

(CNN/CBS4) — A 4-year-old girl in Iowa nearly died and is now blind because of the flu, and her parents have a message: Get your child vaccinated.

Jade DeLucia after she regained consciousness (credit:
Amanda Phillips/Facebook via CNN)

“If I can stop one child from getting sick, that’s what I want to do,” said Amanda Phillips. “It’s terrible to see your child suffer like this.”

Medical experts in Colorado agree.

“Flu is occurring widely across Colorado and thus far, over 900 persons have been hospitalized,” said John M. Douglas, Jr., MD, Executive Director of the Tri-County Health Department.

“If you haven’t gotten a vaccination yet, there is still value in getting it now,” Dr. Bernadette Albanese, Medical Epidemiologist with the Tri-County Health Department told CBS4. Flu activity is high all over the state right now — and what is unusual this season is that they are seeing a higher number of Influenza B cases right now, which they typically do not see until later in the season. It will be weeks before flu activity slows down, officials say.

“Also, it’s very important to realize that if you do get the flu, starting anti-flu medications as soon as possible can help with faster recovery and prevention of complications—especially those at highest risk such as kids under five, adults over 65, women who are pregnant or who have recently delivered a baby, and those with underlying health problems,” Dr. Douglas said.

“If you think you might have the flu—whether you got the vaccine or not—call your doctor as soon as possible to discuss the need for treatment,” Douglas stated.

Click here to see the Centers For Disease Control’s interactive page on state level flu vaccine rates

According to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, the 2019-2020 influenza season officially began on Sept. 29, 2019 and will run through May 16, 2020.

“The geographic spread of influenza activity in the state of Colorado is widespread,” officials stated in the summary for the week ending Jan. 11. Medical experts say it is not too late to get the flu shot.

Jade DeLucia, who did not receive a flu shot this season, caught the flu a few days before Christmas and spent nearly two weeks in the intensive care unit at the University of Iowa Stead Family Children’s Hospital.

“She is lucky to be alive,” said one of her physicians, Dr. Theresa Czech. “She’s a little fighter. And I think she’s super lucky.”

Her parents, who’ve missed work to care for Jade and face medical bills, have started a GoFundMe page.

Every year, dozens of children die from the flu, and most of them had not received a flu shot, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Thousands more children are hospitalized.

Many of those who becomes seriously ill or died were perfectly healthy before they contracted the flu.

Jade is one of them.

‘It’s a little bug’

On December 19, Phillips noticed that Jade wasn’t quite her usually bubbly self.

“She’d say, ‘Mom, I don’t feel good,’ and we’d cuddle on the couch,” Phillips remembers.

A few times over the next several days, Jade spiked a low-grade fever. Medicine brought it down easily, and she went back to playing with her older sister, Catalina.

“She was running around, having fun, eating normally, asking for snacks,” her mother remembers. “It was just — it’s a little bug, she’ll get over it.”

Phillips thinks back to those four days, December 19 through December 23, and wracks her brain for something that might have told her what was about to happen.

“There wasn’t any sign that would’ve told me that something was seriously wrong with her,” she said.

‘We have to go to the emergency room’

The night of December 23, while Phillips was working her shift as an assistant manager at a Dollar General store, Jade’s father, Stephen DeLucia, tucked Jade into bed.

The next morning, the family was ready to leave the house to spend Christmas Eve with Phillips’ parents. But Jade hadn’t yet woken up.

When her father went to check on her, Jade was lying in bed, unresponsive. And her body was burning hot.

“I yelled at him — I was like, ‘We have to go. We have to go to the emergency room. This isn’t right. Something’s not right with her,” Phillips said.

When they arrived at Covenant Medical Center, Jade’s body started shaking uncontrollably, and her eyes rolled to the back of her head.

She was having a seizure.

Doctors filled the room. They said Jade needed to be transferred to the children’s hospital at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, about 80 miles away. There was no time for an ambulance. She would have to be flown.

Her parents watched the helicopter take off.

“I didn’t think I was going to see her again at that point,” Phillips said. “I really didn’t. Just from looking at her, I really honestly didn’t think I was going to see her.”

Bad news on Christmas Day

On Christmas Day, Phillips and DeLucia found out flu had affected her brain.

Called encephalopathy, it’s a known complication of the flu, according to the CDC.

Doctors showed Jade’s parents the MRI results. Her brain was “lit up like a Christmas tree,” her mother remembers.

“They said she had significant brain damage. They said our child might not ever wake up, and if she did, she might not ever be the same,” she said.

Over the next few days, Jade remained almost completely unresponsive.

Czech, a pediatric neurologist, was brought in to consult on Jade’s case. On December 31, she told Jade’s parents her specific diagnosis: acute necrotizing encephalopathy, or ANE, a type of encephalopathy usually caused by a viral infection.

ANE is so rare there are few studies on how children fare. Czech found one study that looked at four children with ANE. Three of them died.

“It’s been 7 days. 7 days of it feeling like Jade was slipping away and that there was no hope. No hope of her ever coming back to us,” her mother wrote on Facebook that day. “All because of the flu.”

Czech prescribed steroids to calm the swelling in her brain.

And finally, Jade’s parents received some good news.

A New Year’s gift

CNN visited Jade’s family on January 1. Her family started the new year with a prayer.

“Heavenly father will you wrap your angels around Jade this morning and throughout the day and pray for healing today,” the prayer went.

Then, they visited Jade at the hospital — and her mother came out beaming.

What had seemed so unlikely had happened: Jade woke up.

“She’s got her eyes open. She’s looking around. We got a couple of hand squeezes! And then we got a smile!” she said.

Over the next few days, Jade kept getting better and better. Her breathing tube came out. She could sit up. She could eat — and specifically requested chocolate pudding.

“Jade said ‘Hi mommy’ and you guys I’m a mess,” Phillips wrote on Facebook on January 5.

But then Jade’s parents and doctors noticed something.

Flu causes blindness

When her mother put Jade’s favorite stuffed animal — a white unicorn — in front of her face, she didn’t look at it.

When she threw a little ball, she didn’t watch it as it went up in the air.

An ophthalmologist came in and examined Jade’s eyes. Everything looked fine.

The problem wasn’t with her eyes. It was with her brain, which had suffered because of the flu.

“It affected the part of her brain that perceives sight, and we don’t know if she’s going to get her vision back,” said Czech, Jade’s neurologist. “In about three to six months from now we’ll know. Whatever recovery she has at six months, that’s likely all she’s going to get.”

Jade might also have cognitive or developmental problems, such as learning disabilities, Czech added. She said that would be determined in the months and years to come.

But considering that Jade arrived at the hospital unresponsive on Christmas Eve, Czech is amazed at her progress.

“I think she’s doing fabulous,” she said.

(© Copyright 2020 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. CNN contributed to this report.)