DADE CITY — Tim Harrelson can still see his daughter's face. Above the oxygen mask, her eyes looked listless, like someone barely clinging to life.
When the breathing treatment didn't work, doctors suggested sedation. A couple of days on a ventilator would help her breathe and fight the infection that had given her a 102-degree fever for three days.
"She begged them to put her on the ventilator," said Harrelson, a Dade City police sergeant. "That kind of floored me."
Harrelson bent to give his daughter a kiss, but his bulletproof vest and the bed rail got in the way. They touched foreheads and exchanged "I love yous" before Harrelson left to change clothes. That was 9:30 a.m. Nov. 4. Four hours later, his 27-year-old daughter was dead, despite prayers he and his wife offered.
"We begged," he said. "It was like Jesus was standing right there beside us."
A man of deep faith, Harrelson said he doesn't ask why.
But he does ask how.
"We go from breathing treatments and home from the hospital to death in a matter of hours. How did this happen?"
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Tests from the Centers for Disease Control show that Holly Harrelson died of complications from the H1N1 influenza virus, nicknamed swine flu because it first developed in pigs. In 2009, it caused a worldwide epidemic. Labs scrambled to develop special vaccines since it surfaced after that season's flu shots were distributed. Four years later, it has become part of the regular seasonal vaccine.
Harrelson said he doesn't think his daughter got the 2013 vaccine. Neither did he. The last time he got a flu shot, he said, it made him "sicker than sick."
His daughter, he said, was healthy and had no underlying health problems. A busy stay-at-home mom, she was always chauffeuring her kids to and from sports and other activities. She and her longtime boyfriend talked of getting married and moving to a bigger house. She wanted to go to college. She smoked, but not heavily. She also had a stubborn streak.
"I was always on her to quit smoking," he said. Her last day alive, she told him, "I guess I'm done smoking now."
At the time he thought she was joking, but now he wonders if she knew how close to death she really was.
He doesn't know where she got the flu.
About a week earlier, he said, he and his wife had been ill with fevers, aches and coughs, but the fevers were low-grade. Harrelson's children, ages 9, 8 and 4, had also suffered cold symptoms but were back in school.
"We all just felt like crap," he said.
The day Holly fell ill, she texted her dad that she had gone to the hospital but expected to be home soon. She asked that the kids be picked up from school.
"I wish I had talked to her in person," he said. If he had, he said, he would have been able to tell she was worse off, more like the message she conveyed on her Facebook page.
"I feel like I'm riding shotgun with death," it said.
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After Holly died, Harrelson wasted no time getting a flu shot. Neither did his wife. She also took the kids — Lester, Levi and Jaylynn — for vaccines.
"It makes me so mad when people say the flu shot is a hoax," he said. "Who knows if it could have saved my daughter's life?"
For anyone who comes up and asks how they can help, Harrelson has one answer: Get the flu shot. Unlike shots from years ago, the ones offered now are made from dead viruses.
"They can't make you sick," he said.
He said he still breaks down. Not a day goes by that something doesn't remind him of Holly. A veteran police officer, he said he has new empathy for those on the receiving end of death notifications. "There's nothing anyone can say," he said.
Residents of this small town where he has spent all 49 years of his life have wrapped their arms around the family. Harrelson said his home was filled with food, though he didn't eat any for four days. People have donated money to a trust fund at Wells Fargo for the kids. Beef 'O' Brady's sponsored a fundraiser.
"That's what I love about these little communities," he said.