Girl, 9, dies of flu

Early edition

Published January 4, 2007

TAMPA — A Tampa fourth grader caught the flu and died over winter break, the first apparent flu death in the state this season, health officials said.

Nichole Lang-Veru , a 9-year-old student at Dale Mabry Elementary School, died Dec. 27, according to the Hillsborough County Medical Examiner’s Office and the Florida Department of Health.

“It should definitely serve as a reminder for everyone to get a flu vaccine,” said state health department spokesman Fernando Senra .

Each year, the flu kills 36,000 people nationwide, he said. Those most at risk are children under 5 and people over 60, said Dr. John Sinnott , chief of infectious diseases and international medicine at the University of South Florida and Tampa General Hospital.

Symptoms of flu include coughing, aching and a temperature of more than 102 degrees. Sinnott recommends that any child with a fever be seen by a pediatrician. Roughly, one out of 1,000 people with the flu develops pneumonia, he said, and half of those die.

Flu season typically spikes in February and March, but people began reporting flu-like symptoms as early as October this year, said Will Darnall , spokesman for St. Joseph’s Hospital in Tampa.

Both St. Joseph’s and Tampa General have seen steady streams of flu patients, but no more than usual for the season, said Darnall and Tampa General spokeswoman Ellen Fiss.

The Medical Examiner’s Office performed an autopsy on Nichole and believes her death is flu-related based upon hospital medical information, said spokesman Dick Bailey.

Bailey cautioned that an official cause of death will not be known until medical test results are known, which could take more than a month.

Sinnott said a 9-year-old child who dies of the flu may be susceptible because of an underlying disease. He wasn’t familiar with Nichole’s case, and it was unclear whether Nichole had other health issues. It was also unclear whether the girl had been vaccinated.

Nichole lived with her parents, Kevin and Diana Lang , and sister, Jessica, in a tidy ranch-style home on Prince Street, just west of Manhattan Avenue and south of Gandy Boulevard.

Her parents told a reporter they were too grief-stricken to talk about their daughter.

Others who knew Nicole remembered her bright smile, her sweet temperament and her supportive family.

Lynn Heller , Nicole’s teacher at Dale Mabry, learned of her student’s death in a phone call over break.

“I think I was in shock first, it was very shocking — never expected it,” Heller said. “Oh my gosh, did she know that I really loved her? Did I say it? Then I remembered I did. What a horrible thing for her family.”
Heller immediately called parents, so they could break the news to Nichole’s classmates before children returned to school.Nichole’s sweet personality made her popular among classmates, Heller said.

“Everybody loved her, they all wanted to sit with her,” she said.

On Wednesday, students shared memories of Nichole. They made cards for her family. They decided to leave her desk empty to remember her. Parents received a letter with tips for dealing with grief.

Heller declined to discuss whether Nichole had any prior medical condition, but she did say she doesn’t recall Nichole missing school before break.

On Wednesday evenings, Nichole attended “His Kids,” a musical children’s ministry at the Davis Islands Baptist Church.

“She was somewhat shy, very quiet, very respectful,” said volunteer class administrator Lisa Vanderburg. “Just a little sunbeam, very sweet.”

Vanderburg last saw Nichole on Dec. 20, when the children walked around the neighborhood, singing Christmas carols.

Vanderburg didn’t notice anything unusual about Nichole’s behavior.

“She just looked her normal self,” she said.

A week later, Nichole died.

“My heart goes out enormously to her family,” Vanderburg said.

Heller recalled the last time she saw Nichole.

As the students left the classroom for winter break, Heller offered her students a choice of a high-five or a hug.
Nichole chose a big hug.

Abbie VanSickle can be reached at 226-3373 or vansickle@sptimes.com.