As the daughter of one Minneapolis firefighter and the wife of another, Linda DeLude thought she knew the dangers that her husband, Barry, faced on the job.
The flu virus didn't even make the list. Until one day in 2007.
In late January, Barry DeLude and his crew responded to a medical emergency at a nursing home. Two days later, he started feeling achy and complained of the worst headache of his life.
He was a healthy 44-year-old with two jobs, two kids and the strength of an ox. No one, least of all his wife, suspected that a bout of the flu would kill him.
"I hate the word 'flu' because it sounds so innocuous," she says now, 20 months after Barry, her high-school sweetheart, died. Looking back, Linda DeLude believes her husband could have survived if he had had a flu shot. Since then she has become something of an evangelist on the subject. "I don't want to see anybody go through what we've gone through," she said.
This fall, she joined a campaign by the American Lung Association, called "Faces of Influenza," sharing her story publicly to encourage people to get vaccinated. She is also volunteering at a flu-shot clinic starting today at a Minneapolis fire station to take the message to her late husband's friends and colleagues. Last fall, she said, "I literally chased some of his friends down the hallway" to make sure they got their shots. "I have no shame," she said. "It would just break my heart to see any of them get super sick."
Flu shots weren't even on her radar, she admits, until her husband fell ill.
She had heard the statistics: Every year, an estimated 36,000 Americans die of complications from the flu and more than 200,000 are hospitalized. But like many people, she said, she didn't take the threat personally.
When her husband woke up on Feb. 2, 2007, feeling lousy and his head throbbing, he insisted on going to work anyway. He returned home at lunchtime "sick as a dog," his wife said, but refused to call a doctor. Two days later, on Super Bowl Sunday, he collapsed in the bathroom. Linda called 911. The emergency responders all knew him and insisted that he go to the hospital. Doctors found that he had not only influenza, but pneumonia and a host of other infections that can flourish in the presence of flu. Sending him home on antibiotics, the doctors told him he'd "have to ride it out." But within two days, he was back in the hospital struggling to breathe. Linda remembers seeing the terror in his "beautiful blue eyes," before he lost consciousness. "He went into the intensive care unit, and he never came home."
His death was caused by an infection in his blood stream, a complication of influenza.
Last month, Barry DeLude was honored at a national ceremony in Colorado Springs for firefighters who have died in the line of duty. Officials determined that he was probably exposed to influenza on the job.
At the home they shared in south Minneapolis, Linda DeLude still wears a bracelet with his name. She points with pride to the coffee table he built by hand, and admits she sometimes talks to his box of ashes, which she keeps on the fireplace mantle. Their sons Jake, 19, and Mark, 17, "miss him desperately," she said. Last Sunday, as she returned alone from a family weekend at Jake's college in Duluth, Linda remembers thinking: "This is ridiculous. Barry should be here with me."
"Of course, I started to cry," she added. "This is something you never get over. You learn how to live with it. Kind of."
Maura Lerner • 612-673-7384