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Opinion We nearly lost our unvaccinated son to flu. This was supposed to happen to other people

Monday night, the doctor told us: "He should recover."

Should. Never have I so hated the conditional tense.

He, our oldest, 5 1/2, who the day before had been jumping merrily on the trampoline at circus school. Monday morning he woke up, out of breath, complaining of a tummy ache. He didn't want to go to school. Odd, because he loves school.

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He came downstairs to watch TV, sank into the sofa, wheezing as if he had just run a marathon. My partner looked at me: "I'm going to take him to the hospital just to make sure he's okay."

Everything was not okay. At noon, our big boy was in the pediatric intensive-care unit of the Centre hospitalier de l'Université Laval; he was plugged in everywhere, an oxygen mask covering his whole face, making him look like an astronaut. The respirator was whirring beside him, the oxygen desperately seeking its path, but not finding it.

The initial diagnosis: Pneumonia.

His heart was racing 170 beats per minute.

"Doc, what's normal?"

"About 100."

His respiration: 85 breaths in 60 seconds.

"Normally?"

"25."

Breathing is not the right term. He was panting like a dog. He had been doing this for seven hours. The doctor said it was time to intubate, "to give him a chance."

Yes, we were there.

We headed into the waiting room. To wait. To cry. To wonder: "Why? How? What did we do wrong that our child is here, in this state?"

There were no answers.

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We returned to his room. Our big boy seemed to be sleeping peacefully, except for the tube in his throat, keeping him alive. I couldn't help but think that if this had happened 60 years ago he would already be dead. I told myself: "You can't think of that." But I couldn't help it.

That's when the doctor said it, in the conditional.

It was a long night. His fever spiked. They moved him to an ice-cold mattress, to cool the fever. They bombarded him with intravenous medication.

By morning, he was doing a little better. Over the next few days, he gradually came back to life. His breathing slowed, he needed less oxygen. I got used to seeing him sleep. I finally managed to sing him a lullaby without weeping.

It's crazy how you can get used to anything. I got used to all the machines, the constant alarms ringing for nothing. My partner and I took turns. We never left his side, sitting in a blue leather chair, reading a book, lifting our eyes after each paragraph to check on his breathing, his pulse, his oxygen saturation level, blood pressure and volume. I learned a lot of new words, a new language.

I marvelled at the work of the nurses, the doctors, in a constant death-defying dance. They put in long days and nights, 12 hours at a stretch and more. They obsessed, they never forgot, always determined to make the right decision at the right time.

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Thursday morning, they decided to wake up our big boy, to remove the breathing tube, the IVs, trading them for a simple oxygen mask. Friday morning, the mask gave way to two little prongs in his nostrils. His battered lungs still needed some help. But his heart was beating normally again.

He was going to make it.

All around us, in the seven other rooms of the intensive care unit, there was non-stop activity. It was quiet during the holidays, the calm before the storm. At least half of our big boy's neighbours were intubated, the respirators whirring beside them.

All their stories similar to ours.

Each time I sat down in that blue leather chair, I wondered: "Where did that pneumonia come from? How did he get hit so hard, so fast?"

The doctors initially suspected a bacterium, then a virus. Which one? "Hard to say," they answered. We figured we would never know.

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The definitive diagnosis came Wednesday night: H1N1.

"Your son wasn't vaccinated?"

We lowered our heads. Guilty as charged.

Yes, we had read about the flu in the paper, we had heard about it on TV. We got vaccinated in 2009. We told ourselves that would protect us.

What else was it we said? That only happens to others.

Well, this time it happened to our little guy. Next year, I swear, we're all getting vaccinated.

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So why am I telling you all this? Why would I annoy you with this little story which, after all, happens to countless others every day during flu season?

Because it doesn't just happen to other people.

Mylène Moisan is a columnist with the Quebec City newspaper Le Soleil. This column was originally written in French and translated by Globe and Mail reporter André Picard.

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