GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. (AP) — When 17-year-old Austin Booth left Rifle High School basketball practice early a year ago because of illness, it was a rarity for the multisport athlete who almost never missed school and was the epitome of good health.

When he began coughing up blood the next morning, his family took him to Grand River Hospital and Medical Center in Rifle, where he ended up on a ventilator awaiting a helicopter flight to Grand Junction.

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“That was the last time, that morning, that we were ever able to speak to him,” said his mother, Regina Booth.

If she could talk to him again, she said, she would apologize for not having had him vaccinated for the flu that, compounded by pneumonia and a staph bacteria known as MRSA, claimed his life within a week, last Jan. 17.

“Knowing that he died of something that was preventable, you feel guilty. You wish that we would have gotten him the flu shot, something so simple as a $10 shot. I would probably tell him that I’m sorry that I didn’t protect him,” Booth said in a quavering voice.

Then again, knowing her son, he wouldn’t want her to feel guilt over his death, she said.

“He would want us to do something positive with it. That’s just the kind of person he was,” she said.

No longer able to speak to her son, Booth is speaking publicly about his loss and the lessons learned from it. She hopes other families will take advantage of flu vaccinations and minimize their chances of a tragedy befalling them like the one that happened to the Booths. Her efforts have included becoming involved with the nonprofit Families Fighting Flu, a national effort to protect children from the flu.

“I felt I should do something in his memory, in any way to help,” she said.

“Before Austin passed away, we never had gotten a flu shot_none of us in our family,” Booth said. “We always thought healthy people don’t die from the flu. We just get sick, and then we get better.”

Laura Scott, executive director of Families Fighting Flu, said about 100 children under age 5 die of the flu each year in the United States. Over the years, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has expanded its recommendation for who ought to get flu shots, and it now recommends it for everyone 6 months and older, she said.

She said she thinks that came after healthy young adults were dying during the flu pandemic of February 2010.

A surprising number of school-age children die from the flu, which probably is a result of the easy spread of the disease in schools, plus the decrease in vaccination rates as children grow older, Scott said. She said whereas younger children tend to see doctors often and are more likely to get shots, once children are in school and become busy, it may become harder for parents to arrange for them to get flu shots.

That’s one reason Scott’s group supports school-based vaccination clinics, she said.

Theresa Hamilton, a spokeswoman for the Garfield Re-2 School District, said such a clinic was held before the holiday break at Coal Ridge High School east of Silt, and there’s talk of holding one at Rifle High School. Such events also will be a component of a school health clinic the district is planning with Grand River Hospital and Medical Center.

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Austin’s family moved to Rifle from Texas the summer before his death, after his dad got a job in the local oil and gas industry. Austin quickly was embraced by his high school classmates and teammates.

“That’s just the kind of kid he was. He made friends instantly and just fit right in. … He loved (Rifle), the people he met and everything,” his mother said.

He played summer baseball as soon as he arrived and then played on the football team. He would have been a senior this year, and this year’s football team kept his name on the roster and otherwise recognized him throughout the season, and the basketball team similarly has continued to honor him, Booth said.

She said Austin had nearly a 4.0 grade-point average and aspired to attend the Colorado School of Mines.

“I’m just sad that all that was taken away from him,” she said.

Her family now gets flu shots. Booth, who used to worry the shots might make them sick, said none have been getting side effects from the shots.

Austin was the oldest of five children. Booth said Austin’s 6-year-old brother often asks her to remind him what Austin’s voice sounded like.

“I think that he’s afraid he’s going to forget,” she said.

Thanks to the Booth family, and other families who have lost children to the flu and shared their stories on the website, the memories of these children are being honored, and the lives of others may be saved.

“We’ve always said that it takes a very special person to do what our members do,” Scott said. “There’s a lot of families that can’t handle it emotionally, which is very understandable. All of our members want to honor their children in some way.”

She said it’s not too late to get a flu shot that will do some good this season.

“Flu really has only just begun circulating, but we have a few months to go, perhaps even longer than that,” Scott said.

– By Dennis Webb, The Daily Sentinel

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