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Flu blamed for death of Tampa 9-year-old

Published January 5, 2007

Nichole Lang-Veru was a student at Dale Mabry Elementary School.

TAMPA - A Tampa fourth-grader caught the flu and died over winter break in what could be the first flu-related 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 younger than 5 and adults older than 60, said Dr. John Sinnott, chief of infectious diseases and international medicine at the University of South Florida and Tampa General Hospital.

Flu symptoms include coughing, aches and a temperature of more than 102 degrees. Sinnott recommends any child with a fever be seen by a pediatrician. About one 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 flulike 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 Hospital have seen a steady stream 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 it appears her death is flu-related based on hospital medical information, said spokesman Dick Bailey.

Bailey said 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 could be susceptible because of an underlying disease.

He wasn't familiar with Nichole's case, and it was unclear whether she had other health issues, or if she 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 said they were too grief-stricken to talk about their daughter.

Others who knew Nichole remembered her bright smile, her sweet temperament and her supportive family. Lynn Heller, Nichole'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 said she called parents so they could break the news to Nichole's classmates before the 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 said 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 or 226-3373.

Avoiding the flu

The Florida Department of Health recommends annual flu vaccines, especially for high-risk groups such as children under age 5 and adults over 50.

In addition, health officials suggest these precautions:

--Wash your hands often with soap and water or an alcohol-based hand cleaner.

--Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth.

--Do not share eating utensils, drinking glasses, towels or other personal items.

--Stay home when you're sick and keep sick children home.

--Avoid close contact with people who are sick, if possible. Avoid crowds and areas where people congregate and are likely to be sneezing and coughing.

--Make sure you're eating properly and getting enough rest.



[Last modified January 5, 2007, 00:42:47]

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