One day in October 2009, Serese Marotta received a call from her son's school. Officials told her that Joseph, her 5-year-old kindergartner, had thrown up, but she wasn't all that worried — both Joseph and her daughter, Emma, had received their flu shots that year, and they were both up-to-date on their immunizations. Unfortunately, though, the flu vaccine that Joseph had gotten earlier that year didn't protect against H1N1, the swine flu virus that had recently started infecting people around the world.
"You know, with the second child, when the school calls and tells you they throw up, it's not a big deal," . "You bring them home, check them out. Well, he continued to throw up throughout the day."
Concerned, Joseph's father, Joe, called their pediatrician, who directed the family to an urgent care clinic. When urgent care found Joseph to have an especially low blood oxygen level, they sent him to the emergency room, where Joe and Serese learned things were much more serious than they had initially suspected.
Joseph would go on to stay in the hospital for nine days. He was diagnosed with pneumonia and put on antibiotics, but no one suspected that he might have the flu — the H1N1 pandemic had only just begun, and tests didn't always detect it. Eventually, Joseph's doctor determined he had influenza and started Joseph on an antiviral drug to help reduce symptoms.
"The ninth day of his hospital stay is when things all of a sudden started kind of going off the rails," Serese said. "[But] I still felt like he's in the right place. He's in the ICU. He's in the hospital. We're doing what we need to do."
One day, while discussing red Gatorade, SpongeBob cartoons and Halloween costumes with Joseph in the hospital, Serese witnessed a mother's worst nightmare: Her son's blood pressure dropped dramatically, and his eyes rolled into the back of his head. The doctors soon discovered that Joseph had sepsis (a rare complication of the flu). His intestines had ruptured, and at just 5 years old, he was bleeding to death. A few hours later, he became one of the 282 children to die from H1N1 virus that year.
"We could be you; we could be anyone," Serese told TODAY. "Our son, you could look at his picture and that could be your child."
Today, Joseph's parents are avid advocates for annual flu vaccines. In fact, Serese has even made it her full-time job: She's now the Chief Operating Officer of , a vaccination advocacy group.
According to the , the H1N1 virus affected nearly 61 million Americans and killed more than 12,000 Americans in 2009. Now, it's one of the strains included in this year's vaccine. And with seasonal vaccination rates declining, that the CDC is urging all Americans to get this year's flu shot ASAP.
"You know, we've even had family members who have been reluctant to get the flu vaccine," Serese told TODAY. "And that seems a little ironic, given Joseph's situation. But again, I think it's just sharing our story, reiterating again and again how important it is. It's the best preventative measure we can take."