Community grieves boy’s death from flu

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

Snowflakes flutter to the ground outside a large picture window in West Bloomfield as 6-year-old Adam Arabo looks at photos of his identical twin brother, Ashton, taped to a large poster board in his family’s great room. He smiles.

There is a sunny picture of the twins sitting on their mom Melody Arabo’s lap at the beach, water lapping at their feet. There is another picture of the family at their sister’s First Communion, and a funny picture of the two as babies, standing at a sofa with saggy diapers.

Several feet away in the living room, an air hockey table the twins got for Christmas stands untouched.

“I think he’s really confused,” Melody Arabo said. “He’s really lonely. It’s very quiet at the house.”

In late January, Ashton died of flu-induced encephalopathy, or swelling of the brain, after the twins both came down with influenza. Ashton’s death is the first pediatric flu-related death reported in Michigan this year.

Ashton’s illness and death has unleashed an outpouring of support for the Arabo family, from hundreds of cards and religious mementos to an online GoFundMe account that has raised more than $50,000 in 15 days. Arabo, a teacher in the Walled Lake Consolidated Schools and 2014-15 Michigan Teacher of the Year, says the money will be used to start the Ashton’s Miracle Foundation to “spread acts of kindness in his honor day after day and year after year,” according to the page.

During such a difficult time, the support has “been amazing,” said Arabo, who works at Keith Elementary. “It’s been beyond our wildest dreams.”

Arabo said that from the beginning, when the twins, both Walled Lake kindergarteners, first got sick and she asked for support on Facebook, people dropped off food at their house. Messages of support came from all over the country — and world.

“We got messages from Ireland, Germany. We got a message from Baghdad from a little girl named Miriam who was featured on ‘20/20,’ ” Arabo said. “It was really helpful. Any time we were feeling frustrated, we read messages from people.”

For Arabo and her husband, Elias, the ordeal started Jan. 6 when their 9-year-old daughter came home from Girl Scouts not feeling well. Within hours, she had a 104 degree fever and was vomiting.

“We were just trying to take care of her,” Arabo said.

By Jan. 7, her husband became sick and so did the twins.

When Melody Arabo went to check on both boys, Ashton’s lips were blistered and black from dehydration.

Arabo called her pediatrician and took the boys at 4 a.m. Jan. 9 to the emergency room at Henry Ford West Bloomfield. Both boys got an IV for hydration. Doctors said she could take the boys home, but she opted to stay overnight as a precaution.

“They thought it was a stomach virus,” Arabo said.

But it wasn’t. Talking to one of her best friends, a nurse, Arabo said she asked if the boys had been tested for the flu.

“It came back positive,” said Arabo, who said her daughter and husband also tested positive. “They also did a chest X-ray and it came back for early pneumonia.”

Doctors started the boys on antibiotics. By Jan. 11, Adam’s fever broke and his appetite returned. But Ashton got worse.

“He got really uncomfortable, really whiny — just worse than the day before,” Arabo said. “I just kept saying, ‘I feel like there’s something wrong.’ ”

A rash broke out and soon Ashton was transferred to Children’s Hospital of Michigan. He briefly seemed to rebound — asking for his favorites, blueberries and lemonade — before his condition worsened. Eventually he was placed in the ICU. He died Jan. 25.

Arabo looks at that time in the intensive care unit as a gift from Ashton.

“We see it as Ashton buying time,” said Arabo, who wouldn’t comment on whether Ashton received the flu vaccine, saying that’s a parent’s choice. “ ... It really gave us time to digest what was happening.”

Now, as the family tries to find its footing, they’re relying on their faith and family.

A small shrine to Ashton of religious artifacts, candles and pictures stands in front of the fireplace in the family room. Nearby is a blanket made by students at Keith Elementary. Each student tied two strands and made a wish for Ashton.

Arabo said she and her husband always knew they lived in a great community, but kindness came from far beyond their city’s borders. They hope Ashton’s foundation will carry on the acts of kindness they experienced.

“That this has spread so far, it just kind of shows the beauty of something like this bringing people together and true human compassion and empathy,” Arabo said.

mfeighan@detroitnews.com

(313) 223-4686

Ashton’s Miracle Foundation

The Arabo family has started a GoFundMe page to raise money for a foundation that will be created in their son Ashton’s name to spread acts of kindness. Go to https://www.gofundme.com/xh2dgeqs.