"If I had seen a story like my own, I would have prioritized the flu shot."

By Jason Duaine Hahn
October 16, 2018

When 4-year-old Leon Sidari came down with a fever and body aches two days before Christmas, his mother, Laura Sidari, hoped her little boy would feel better after spending a day sipping on chicken noodle soup and watching cartoons on their couch.

But the next morning, Leon woke up with a barky cough and difficulty breathing, and Laura — a physician in the military — rushed him to a local emergency room where doctors placed him in the pediatric ICU. He was soon diagnosed with bacterial pneumonia and the flu, and his condition continued to worsen at a quickening pace.

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“In the hospital, there came a moment when my brain knew that my son was dying, but my heart simply did not,” Laura, 32, tells PEOPLE. “In medical training, I can remember similar moments in the critical care setting, where death approached like a train hurtling towards its final destination. However, as a mother, nothing can prepare you for watching your child die.”

Though he was scheduled to receive a flu vaccination only a few days later, Leon would die in the early morning hours of Christmas Day, just 48 hours after his symptoms appeared. He had no history of medical problems.

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“In the end, there was simply shock, horror, helplessness and unbearable pain,” Laura recalls. “I remember my final moments with him, crying in his blonde hair and kissing him goodbye.”

Now, Laura is hoping to raise awareness about the infection, and spur other families to get vaccinated before the flu season goes into overdrive, as even a week’s time could make all the difference.

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“Last year, if I had seen a story like my own, I would have prioritized the flu shot differently. As a physician, even I was unaware of the significant risk that the flu posed to my healthy child,” she says. “Through reaching out to others, including other physician parents, I have discovered that I am not alone in that misconception.”

In early October, Laura posted pictures to her Facebook of her husband and two young sons receiving their vaccinations together. She shared the photos under the hashtag #FluShotsForLeon, and encouraged others to share pictures from their vaccination appointments.

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According to CNN, more than 180 children have died as a result of the 2017 to 2018 season.

“Each of these children is important, particularly to the families and friends who have lost them,” Laura says. “Leon is important to me.”

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The Center for Disease Control estimates that the flu has caused between nine million to 35 million illnesses each year in the U.S. since 2010. While it’s hard to pinpoint how many people have died from the disease, the center estimates that flu-associated deaths range from 12,000 in 2011 and 2012 to a high of 56,000 in 2012 and 2013.

This year, the infection has already taken lives, including that of a 29-year-old lawyer from North Carolina.

The CDC recommends getting vaccinated, as it can lessen the chance of catching the virus by 10 to 60 percent (though it doesn’t guarantee that someone will not catch the flu).

RELATED: 10 Biggest Myths About The Flu

Courtesy Laura Sidari

They also recommend washing your hands throughout the day, contacting your medical provider and not going to work or school if you feel symptoms, getting adequate rest and staying hydrated.

Laura’s post on Facebook has received over 21,000 shares and hundreds of comments, and has surely inspired others to get vaccinated sooner rather than later. In doing so, Laura may have spared other families the pain she has endured since the loss of her son.

“Leon shaped me into a mother. He transformed my husband and me from a couple into a family,” Laura says. “When we care for our children as parents, we give them pieces of ourselves that cannot be returned. In losing Leon, I have lost part of myself. He has touched every fiber of my being and is never far from my heart.”

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