The 2018-2019 flu season was the longest on record, lasting a total of 21 weeks. The average season lasts between 7-15 weeks. Only 143 children died from the flu last year, compared to 187 children during the 2017-2018 flu season, the deadliest on record for children. Each year, half of the pediatric deaths occur in healthy children, the majority of which were unimmunized against influenza. But this column is not about vaccines or statistics.

This column is about the loss of one very special little girl, Piper Lowery, a healthy, vibrant 12-year old girl, who died from H1N1 Influenza in early 2016. This week marks the fourth anniversary of her death and I want this community to know her better.

More than 15 years ago, I attended her delivery in an operating room at Harrison in Silverdale and I loved her from the moment she was placed in my arms by the delivering Obstetrician. For 12 years, I had the privilege of watching her grow into a bright and self-assured young lady. Whenever her name appeared on my schedule, it would put a smile on my face. She always brought sunshine with her wherever she went.

Piper and I had an effortless rapport. She could always make me laugh. I cherished her hugs and her quiet smile. I often bribed her with chocolate from my personal stash to assuage my guilt after giving her shots. These are some of the things I miss most of all. One crystal clear memory is a conversation she, her grandmother and I shared after I had become pregnant for the third time. I assumed it would be yet another boy, having had two sons already. At the age of eight, she was clairvoyant, assuring me it would be a girl this time. And of course, she was right.

Piper was not technically my child but that is still how I thought of her. I heard her sing, listened to her jokes, eased her fears, and shared many other extraordinary moments with her. I am so grateful to her parents for allowing me to be part of their lives. I expected to take care of Piper’s children someday and knew she would make a wonderful mother herself after watching her care for her little brother, whom she adored. I never imagined it would end.

The last time I saw her she did not feel well. She was pale yet still had a twinkle in her eye. I repeated her vitals myself and spent extra time with her to ensure nothing was missed. I treasured our hug when she left, not knowing it would be our last. Her mom knew to take her to the local children’s hospital if she worsened over the weekend. That Saturday morning, they headed off to Tacoma. Upon arrival, Piper collapsed in the parking lot and had to be carried into the ER by strangers. I wish I had been there, though the outcome would have been no different. Not one day has gone by since her passing that I have not thought of Piper and longed to see her smiling face one more time. I know many of her friends and family members in this community echo the same sentiment.

Every year, I listen to the voicemail message her mom left that day telling me Piper died. As both a physician and mother, I was overcome with grief. I drove to their home without knowing what to say to her family. We shared so many stories about Piper and her shenanigans that day. We laughed and cried for what felt like hours. I think her family might have been more of a comfort to me than I was to them.
Piper was the first and the only patient in nearly 20 years of practice for whom I have signed the birth certificate and the death certificate. 100 years ago, country doctors did that sort of thing frequently, but today, it is rare. It remains one of the hardest things I have ever done as a physician.

I want those of you reading this column to know how thoughtful and considerate Piper was at the tender age of just 12. On the drive to Tacoma, Piper asked her mother whether I would be in the ER to meet her. Piper had never been anywhere but my clinic and was disappointed that I would not be there. I requested that they let me know how Piper was doing that afternoon. Despite her illness, Piper thought to tell her mom that she loved me. Those final words are etched on my heart forever.

At her funeral, I sat next to a mother of four whose children attended school with Piper. She handed me countless numbers of tissues as tears were streaming down my face. While taking in each picture of Piper over the years, I realized I had known her at every single stage of her all-too-brief lifetime. Halfway through the service, this mother leaned over and said “I wish my children had a relationship with their pediatrician like Piper had with hers.”

And that was the moment it dawned on me that I was actually the lucky one; to know Piper and to love her. Being her pediatrician was my honor and privilege and I was lucky indeed.