Before his 49-year-old wife died of influenza in 2012, Mark McIlroy had never considered that the flu could be deadly for fit healthy people.
[Interview with Mark McIlroy. The video is intercut with photos of his wife Catherine and their family.]
Title: Mark McIlroy, Wife Catherine died from influenza
Mark: The reason why I think everyone should have a flu shot is because people do die from the flu. Healthy people and people with medical conditions. And my wife Catherine, she was 100 percent healthy. She was fit and she did a lot of walking and she did pilates. And she got the flu and she died.
What happened with Catherine is that she woke up on a Wednesday morning–
She woke up on a Wednesday morning and she said to me that she had a tickle in her throat. And didn’t really think much of it but within about 2 or 3 hours she was actually sitting and lying on the couch and she was getting hot and cold. But apart from that she seemed reasonably OK, we just thought it was just a cold type thing.
But on the Friday, she felt that she just had to stay in bed. And then we thought it was probably something a little bit more serious than just a cold. But on Saturday she said to me that she was going to be getting up on Saturday morning but she couldn’t, she just didn’t have any energy to get up so–
Around midday I actually rang Healthline and spoke to one of the nurses there. And they asked me to ask Catherine some questions like what the day was. Catherine was able to answer those questions. But the nurse on the Healthline thought it would be prudent to get an ambulance.
So they put her into intensive care and–
I stayed with her until about 10 or 11 o’clock on Saturday night. She was quite lucid. And we told each other that we loved each other.
They rang very early Sunday morning suggesting that I should come in. And so, went back in. And meanwhile I rung the family and then it was just a fairly short period. Her organs just started to shut down. And she was in intensive care, there was somebody always there with her in the room and monitoring her situation.
Monday morning the doctor called us for a family meeting saying that she had passed the point of no return and they would, at some stage would be turning the life support system off and she would die.
We just didn’t know that people who are healthy could die from the flu.
So it’s just very very important that everyone gets a flu jab.
‘Until Catherine’s death, I’d thought it was something that only older people or people with health conditions needed to worry about,’ he says. ‘We made sure our children received all of their childhood vaccinations but we didn’t think a winter flu vaccination was important for us. We didn’t have any underlying health risks and were generally fit and healthy.’
When Catherine became unwell that winter she at first thought she had a cold or mild bout of flu. She had a tickle in her throat and was a little feverish but the following day felt well enough to celebrate Mark’s birthday with friends at a lunch and then dinner.
During dinner, however, Mark says she had to excuse herself to go to the bathroom, where she vomited. On Friday, the third day of her illness, she could only take fluids and spent the day in bed resting. On Saturday morning she went to get out of bed but couldn’t raise herself. At about midday Mark called Healthline for advice and a nurse recommended that he call an ambulance. When Catherine arrived at Wellington Hospital she was admitted to the Intensive Care Unit and Mark stayed with her until late that night, when staff advised him to go home for some rest.
Very early on Sunday morning Mark received a call from the hospital suggesting that he and the rest of the family come to see Catherine as she had become critically ill. The following morning, only 5 days after she first became unwell, Catherine passed away.
Mark still struggles to talk about the death of his beloved Catherine but wants her story to be known so that as many people as possible have an annual influenza vaccination. ‘It’s such a simple precaution to prevent getting seriously sick and potentially dying from the flu,’ he says.
Immediately after Catherine’s death Mark made sure the rest of his family had an influenza vaccination. In 2013, he and his adult children Louisa and Ollie were among the first in New Zealand to receive the Southern Hemisphere’s influenza vaccine. Mark also offered to pay for his 60 employees and their families to have that year’s vaccination, along with the 150 students living at Canterbury University’s College House.
He says he was motivated to fund the College House flu vaccinations because he and his daughter had lived there as students and he thinks a flu jab might be something students wouldn’t opt to pay for. ‘It’s really important for young people to get the flu jab, just like everyone else, because influenza can hit you hard at any age.’