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Mom on Son’s Flu: ‘Scariest Time of My Life’

photo of john chelcy and mom

Jan. 29, 2020 -- LaToya Chelcy had no idea the flu could be so serious. Ever since a flu shot made her feel sick years ago, the mom from LaGrange, GA, has skipped it. She didn’t get flu shots for her two children, either: 17-year-old John and his sister, 15-year-old Aukeeviah.

Then, last month, John landed in the hospital, sidelined by a severe case of the flu that led to so much muscle damage, it led to kidney failure, two stays in the intensive care unit, and a 2-day coma.

Now, she has two missions: to fatten up John, who lost about 20 pounds during his hospital stay, and to spread the word about the importance of an annual flu shot. Her family will make it a yearly habit, she says.

"This was the scariest time of my life," she says. To other families, she says: "Please don't hesitate to get the flu shot. I don't want this to happen to any other child." John got a flu shot before he was discharged.

This flu season is shaping up as a bad one, and children and teens are being hit hard. Children can be particularly vulnerable to the B strain of flu that has been circulating. As of January 18, 54 flu-related children’s deaths have been reported to the CDC. Since 2010, from 7,000 to 26,000 children and teens have had to be hospitalized annually due to flu.

From Muscle Aches to Black Urine

LaToya says her son is typically cheerful and always keeps her laughing. "He's a funny guy," she says. "He has all kinds of jokes going on."

But the day after Christmas was different. He called from his dad's house and told her he was hurting bad. He said he couldn't walk. "I went and got him," LaToya says, and as he was walking to her vehicle, the pain got even worse. "My boyfriend literally carried him."

They went to a nearby walk-in urgent care clinic, and the doctor diagnosed him with the flu. He was hurting so bad, he did not want to be touched. Once urgent care released him and prescribed him Tamiflu to ease the symptoms, John asked to go to his grandmother's house nearby and rest.

Minutes later, his grandmother called LaToya and said, "We need to take him to the ER now."

Once at the ER at the hospital in LaGrange, John gave them the requested urine sample. "It came back black," LaToya says. When the nurse saw it, she told them it could be kidney failure. Quickly, he was transferred to Children's Healthcare of Atlanta at Egleston Hospital, about 80 miles away, where he would have access to a kidney specialist.

"He was scared and crying," LaToya says. "We were trying to calm him down." But the sight of the urine, so dark it looked like black coffee, terrified everyone. John was taken by ambulance, which took almost 2 hours, and LaToya followed.

Flu With Muscle, Kidney Complications

Stephanie Jernigan, MD, a pediatric nephrologist and co-chief of medicine at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta, treated John. He tested positive for flu and was diagnosed with rhabdomyolysis, a known complication of the flu in which muscle tissue breaks down and releases the breakdown products into the bloodstream. The buildup of these breakdown products is what changes the urine’s color, Jernigan says.

"It can also result in acute kidney injury," she says. "The kidneys can get overwhelmed. In his case, it caused acute kidney failure. His stopped making urine for several days, about 7 to 10."

He was put on dialysis, which supports the body while the kidneys recover, Jernigan says. Fluid had built up in his lungs, and he had to go on oxygen. He was placed in a medically induced coma.

The coma was the scariest, John says. "When I woke up, I thought it was still the day after Christmas," he says, "and it was actually New Year's Day."

Jernigan says despite the severe kidney complications, John will be fine. He needs to be monitored until he returns to normal kidney function, she says. The kidney problems brought on high blood pressure, so he is on blood pressure medicines for now, she says.

Back to Nearly Normal

LaToya is doing her best to make healthy meals so John can regain his weight. He is 5 feet, 10 inches tall, and his weight had dropped to about 125 pounds when he left the hospital, his mother says. "I'm tall, but I don’t have meat on my bones," John says.

"She is keeping me eating right," he says, serving him lots of healthy salads and minimizing the salt to help handle his high blood pressure. He’s still a little unsteady when he walks. "I'm not 100%," he admits.

But he's committed to never missing an annual flu shot to cut the risk of this happening again. Going forward, it will be a habit. "Oh yes, every year," he says.

WebMD Health News Reviewed by Hansa D. Bhargava, MD on January 29, 2020


LaToya Chelcy 42, LaGrange, GA.

John Chelcy, 17, LaGrange, GA.

Stephanie Jernigan, MD, pediatric nephrologist and co-chief of medicine, Children's Healthcare of Atlanta.

CDC: “Weekly U.S. Influenza Surveillance Report,” Jan. 18, 2020.

CDC: “Children & Influenza (Flu),” Oct. 23, 2019.

CDC: “FluView. Influenza-Associated Pediatric Mortality.”

Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy: "Early-season influenza B dominance -- why it's hard on kids," Jan. 13, 2020.

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