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“This could have been prevented”: 5-year-old’s tragic story inspires free flu shot clinics

Ashley Zlatopolsky
Special to The Detroit News

In 2003, Alana Yaksich died  from influenza at the age of 5 just 48 hours after developing flu symptoms. One Saturday morning, the perfectly healthy girl with no underlying conditions woke up with a 99 degree fever and didn’t want to go to dance class. She felt better throughout the day and went to bed. In the middle of the night she woke up vomiting, her fever having skyrocketed to 106 degrees.

“At first I thought the thermometer was broken,” Alana’s father Zachary Yaksich, who founded Alana’s Foundation in her memory, explains. The organization provides influenza education, support and free flu shot clinics for the community, which are being held this fall in indoor, outdoor and drive-thru locations around Metro Detroit. “So we got a second thermometer and it was still 106 (degrees).”

An ambulance was called and Alana was rushed to the hospital. For “what felt like an eternity,” Yaksich continues, but was only a couple of hours, doctors weren’t able to bring his daughter’s fever down and she was admitted to the pediatric ICU. Then she went into convulsions, slipped into a coma and was put on life support.

Alana Yaksich passed away in 2003 from influenza. Her family created a foundation to offer free flu shots to people who may not be able to afford it.

The next morning, Yaksich spoke to Alana’s treating physician, who explained that she had the flu. “I felt relieved,” Yaksich says, “and the doctor kept talking. He looked at me and said, ‘You’re not comprehending what I’m telling you.’ What he was telling me was that the flu had attacked her brain, that she was going to die and that there was nothing they were able to do for her.”

Alana was kept alive until Monday, but there were no changes.

“That’s how fast the flu actually took her life,” Yaksich says. “I realized that this was something that could have been prevented with something as simple as a shot.”

While Alana hadn’t been vaccinated against influenza, because her pediatrician didn’t recommend it at the time, even though she had been vaccinated against other illnesses, Yaksich understood the importance of a flu shot and made it his mission to share that message with others. Alana’s Foundation was launched in 2009 and began by setting up flu shot clinics at Alana’s school, the family’s church and other local community events.

“It was gaining some traction,” Yaksich, 53 of West Bloomfield Township, recalls. But what he saw was that families would pick and choose who would be vaccinated. “I started asking, ‘Why?’ And it was always that they didn’t have insurance or the money to afford it.” 

He knew affordability and accessibility would be key to the mission, so Alana’s Foundation became an official nonprofit with the ability to raise money to cover all flu immunization expenses for people who participate in their clinics.

“I tell my story a lot because it’s real,” Yaksich explains, who often speaks at events and to medical providers. “You’re looking at somebody local in your community who is one of the statistics, and that holds a lot of weight.”

This month, Alana’s Foundation will be hosting more than 10 flu shot clinics around Michigan, including Metro Detroit. They are developed in partnership with Michigan Community Visiting Nurse Association, or VNA, which administers the vaccines. To ensure additional safety measures for COVID-19, drive-thru clinics have been organized and participants can fill out consent forms online, which are then processed via iPads onsite. Social distancing and masks will be enforced at all locations.

“Community partnerships are an absolute necessity in protecting our citizens,” said Dave DeBoer, deputy fire marshal of the West Bloomfield Fire Department, which were the first responders for Alana. The department is one of the locations hosting a drive-thru flu clinic this year. “This may very well be the most important flu season ever to get a flu shot.”

“This partnership and Alana's story have allowed us to inspire participation and achieve our goal of offering the community an opportunity for immunization, also removing cost as a barrier to participation,” Debbie Binder, West Bloomfield Township clerk, adds. Participants who have insurance will have their insurance companies billed for flu vaccine costs, while those without insurance will receive shots free of charge.

“It’s the best way to protect yourself and protect the community around you,” Yaksich says. He believes this year above all is the most crucial for flu vaccination to prevent overwhelming the capacity of health care systems who are also treating COVID-19.

Dr. Deborah Charfoos, a practicing OBGYN in Farmington Hills and Clawson, says this is a top concern in the medical community as we head into fall and winter. “We're really worried that what's going to happen is that if people don’t get their flu vaccine, they will get sick and end up in the emergency room and in all of our doctors offices,” she says, “and it’s going to overrun the system if COVID-19 also resurges in the winter.”

She calls it a potential “double attack” on the medical system that could impact supplies and other items needed to keep people healthy. With overlaps in some symptoms between COVID-19 and influenza as well, Dr. Charfoos also recommends paying attention to timing. The flu will come on suddenly, she says, within a matter of hours, while COVID-19 can be more insidious and take days to fully develop. She also recommends speaking to physicians or pediatricians with any concerns regarding the vaccine and cautions that the shot itself cannot cause the flu.

“Most people get a killed virus,” Dr. Charfoos explains. “That’s the shot. The only time you’re getting any kind of live virus at all is if you do the nasal spray [flu mist], which most people don’t.” Feeling under the weather for a day or two after the flu shot is normal, she says, and a sign that your body is learning how to fight the virus. “It’s activating to make antibodies so that when you get exposed to the flu, you’re not going to get it.”

Yaksich adds that while traditional methods such as handwashing, wearing masks and staying home when sick can all help prevent the spread of influenza, getting a flu vaccine is the best form of defense. “It doesn’t take that long,” he says, “and the benefits far outweigh the risks.”

For a list of free Alana's Foundation flu clinics, visit AF clinics 2020