FLOWER MOUND, Texas -- There is shock and grief in Flower Mound after a student's death from complications from the flu. The 17 year old fell ill and died suddenly while visiting family in Wisconsin.
On December 23, Max Schwolert played in the Wisconsin snow. On Dec. 29, he died. His family said the flu turned to pneumonia, followed by a swift and fatal staph infection.
"It really kind of hit him on the night of the 25th," said Max's aunt, Michelle Schwolert. "[We] took him to the hospital, and from there it was very quick. There was a point of no return."
The sudden death of the young, healthy athlete stunned his church family at Faith Lutheran.
"He has had such an impact on this church, on this community," Michelle Schwolert said.
Colleen Mauboules, a family friend, was stunned to hear Max had died when he had seemed fine days before.
“This child goes away with his family healthy, and they’re not coming back with him?" she said. "That just can’t happen."
Mauboules took her family to get their flu shots the morning after Max died.
“It’s probably the first shot my husband had in 20 years,” she said.
Max's teammates on the Flower Mound Marcus golf team are leaning on each other to absorb the blow.
"I still can't believe it," said teammate Dillon Mauboules, who worked with Max at Bridlewood Golf Club, and played basketball with him the day before he left on vacation.
He's searching for meaning in the sudden loss.
"Don't take life for granted," Dillon said, "and live to the Max."
"Love to the Max" is the message painted on a sign that teens pounded into the ground Tuesday outside Faith Lutheran. Max's father is a youth pastor there, and Max played basketball in the church league. That's also the message spreading through postings on Facebook and Caring Bridge.
"Now that you have everyone listening, what do you do with that?" Colleen Mauboules said. "And that is Max's legacy."
Mauboules posted updates on Max's struggle on Facebook. She said Max would have wanted a legacy of faith, so a fund has been started for youth ministries at Faith Lutheran. There is also a fund to help his family. Max's golf coach plans a memorial tournament to honor the teen.
Then there's one simple act by friends and family.
"I'm the first to say, 'My family doesn't get the flu shot,' but we will, and we will advocate that from now on," Michelle Schwolert said.
Each year, an average of 24,000 Americans die from the flu. It generally targets the old or sick. Yet, officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urge almost everyone to get a flu shot every season. It takes about two weeks for antibodies to develop to protect the body against the virus. Vaccinations aren’t a guarantee you won’t catch the flu, but doctors say it’s the best way to protect yourself from the virus.
This year is proving to be especially severe for the flu. Texas is among 11 states - mostly in the South - seeing high and widespread levels of the virus. The flu season, which typically doesn’t peak until January or February, started earlier and seems to be more severe. Plus, the primary strain circulating, H3N2, an influenza-A virus, tends to make people sicker.
“It’s been really very busy. The flu season is definitely here,” said Dr. Neal Talbott, who has worked for 17 years in the emergency room of Texas Health Harris Hospital in Fort Worth.
The hospital is seeing up to 360 people a day -- 60 more than usual. Most are walking in complaining of flu-like symptoms.
“The body aches, the cough, the headache. It’s miserable,” Dr. Talbott said, adding often there aren’t enough rooms to accommodate all the patients. “If we don’t have enough space in rooms, we have to put beds in the hallway… It’s like that way every day.”
It’s a reality facing many hospitals across North Texas; some report waits of up to 10 hours. Children’s Medical Center of Dallas declared a Code Yellow emergency to help deal with increased demand. Cook Children’s in Fort Worth is trying to heal twice the number of patients it typically treats.
It’s not clear why the flu is showing up so early. The last time the flu season started this early was the winter of 2003-2004. That season proved to be one of the deadliest in 35 years, killing more than 48,000 people. Still, the CDC said more people seem to be prepared for it this year. Nearly a third of Americans have been vaccinated.
Max Schwolert's family hopes more will get immunized, even though they will never know if the flu shot would have saved Max’ life.
“He was a wonderful, lively, funny, athletic, healthy child,” his aunt said. “It just goes to show you it can really happen to anyone, and you have to take it seriously.”
A fund to help the Schwolerts has been established at this website. Contributions to the youth ministry fund may be made to Faith Lutheran Church in Flower Mound.