It seems like every day brings fresh headlines of the incredible severity of this flu season. The newest surveillance data from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that the flu is killing as many as 4,000 people each week. But the worst headlines have been the individual stories of people dying who didn’t seem particularly vulnerable to the flu — they weren’t very young, or very old, and didn’t have other underlying health issues — but whose rapid deterioration leaves family and doctors stunned. Most recently, what happened to a teacher in North Texas and mother of two is especially devastating: a 38-year-old mom died from the flu after skipping a medication that she reportedly worried was too costly for her family, according to local news reports.
Her story is a reminder of why access to affordable prescription medication is important, but it's especially frightening because this mom reportedly did what so many parents do every single day: put her family’s needs before her own.
The Weatherford Democrat reported the details of what happened to Heather Holland earlier this month. Holland, a second grade teacher at a local elementary school, became ill over a week ago and her husband, Frank Holland, told the newspaper that she didn’t pick up the prescribed flu medication because of the $116 co-pay. While the publication didn't note which medicine Holland was prescribed, Tamiflu (which is typically prescribed for flu) costs around $112 without insurance, according to TrueMedCost.com.
In an interview local FOX News affiliate KCCI, the family’s pastor, Clark Bosher, explained why Holland might have skipped the medication:
She wouldn't go get medicine because she's a mama. Mama's are tough. She just kept going. She had a job; she had kids. I think any mom does that. I don't think she is being irresponsible. I don't think she thought she was that sick. It happened so quick.
I’m sure any parent reading this can probably relate. Shrugging off an illness and keeping the household moving is just part of parenthood. Bosher could easily be describing any busy parent on any given day.
But, this is probably the worst time to shrug off a flu diagnosis. Right now, we’re in one of the worst flu seasons of the past decade. Public health experts have called this flu season a “phenomenon” with deaths on par with levels normally seen when a new strain hits a population that hasn’t yet built its defenses, Fortune recently reported. And officials believe the season hasn’t yet reached its peak; CDC Acting Director Anne Schuchat told the outlet that “everything we are looking at is bad news.”
That’s what makes Holland’s story so disturbing. Her death, it seems, was preventable — if Holland had been able to afford the medication prescribed to her, that is. And she isn’t alone: Marketwatch recently reported that every year, some 125,000 people in the United States die because of skipping medication or taking it incorrectly.
And skipping medications because of high co-pays is alarmingly common, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. In 2015, one in five people chose not to fill a prescription because it was too expensive, the foundation found. And as one might imagine, those figures are even higher for people with low incomes: KFF found that three out of 10 people making less than $40,000 per year said that cost prevented them from getting prescription drugs.
Frank Holland decided to get the medication himself, according to the Weatherford Democrat, but by then Holland’s condition had worsened. The Weatherford Democrat reported that Holland was in intensive care by Friday night and by Sunday morning, she had died.
Holland’s husband told the outlet that his 10-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son were (understandably) in shock on hearing the news:
I have to be strong for the kids but it’s still surreal, it hasn’t all set in. We’ve been together a long time, over half my life. She’s my best friend, my soulmate, my everything.
Because the flu is expected to continue circulating for several weeks, health officials still urge everyone over 6 months of age to get a flu shot, the Weatherford Democrat reported. Because of the dangers of flu-related deaths, getting the flu shot is still worth it, even at this point in the season, health experts have said. Moreover, many local pharmacies offer low-cost or free options for those with health coverage. You can find information on flu clinics and vaccine availability near you through the CDC's flu vaccine finder.