#WeCanforLeeann: Widower turns grief into fight against the flu

Oct. 28, 2016: A Knoxville man is channeling his grief over his wife's death due to the flu into a campaign to encourage others to get their flu shot.

Friday from 5 p.m. - 6:30 p.m. get your flu questions answered by local health experts. Email your questions to 10Listens@wbir.com.

A wedding photographer by trade, Don Samples captures love on a daily basis. So, it doesn't come as a surprise that he recognized his love for Leeann instantly when they were set up on a blind date.

"I tell people I fell in love with her the first time I saw her. We didn't see each other before we met, I had no idea what she looked like, but when she walked in the restaurant, I immediately knew who she was and I said, 'I'm going to marry her,'" Samples said.

Don and Leeann married in December of 1991. Together the couple fell in love with their foster children. They adopted Katie in 2000 and Bella in 2012.

When Bella was still a baby and in the process of being adopted, Leeann came down with the flu. The 46-year-old was active and generally healthy.

"We had gotten the flu before. You just kind of trudged through it," Don said. "You were sick for a couple days then you were done. This one hung around a little bit longer."

The flu hit around Christmas, and it took Leeann awhile to get to the doctor. Leeann was in bad shape by the time she arrived at the doctor's office. When the nurse tried to take Leeann's blood oxygen level reading, she thought the instrument was broken.

"So they put a second one on her and it was the same reading. Her blood oxygen level was 40 percent," Samples said.

A normal blood oxygen level is 95-100 percent.

The seriousness of Leeann's condition didn't hit Don until the doctor called him in the middle of the night explaining Leeann had developed double pneumonia and Aggressive Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS) from the flu.

"He {the doctor} said, 'Most people who have this don't survive this. I'm going to be honest with you, there's not a good prognosis with this,'" Samples said, "I hit the floor. I was devastated."

Leeann stayed in the ICU on a ventilator in a medically-induced coma for 28 days. Eventually, she fought her way out of it, and was able to return home in late February 2012.

About a month later, she suddenly felt tired and when Don went to get her a glass of water, she collapsed.

"I was trying everything I can. There was no pulse, there was nothing," Don said. "I started doing CPR. I called 911 while doing CPR. Both my daughters were in the house and saw what was going on."

Don said his eldest daughter is taking it the hardest. She has special needs and shared a close bond with her mother.

"It shook me because I went from having a wife and a partner and someone to help me raise kids to I'm doing it by myself," he said.

Since Leeann's death, Don and his girls started getting their flu shots in honor of their mom. Last year, they started encouraging their friends and family.

This year, Don is partnering with the Knox County Health Department for a social media campaign: #WeCanforLeeann.

"We just don't realize how many people do die from the flu every year. It's important to protect yourself, but also the people around you. When more of us get the flu shot more of the community is protected," said Knox County Health Department's Clinical Services Manager Dena Mashburn.

"If I can get one person to get a flu shot, then I've done something to remember Leeann by. And that's the whole purpose of this," Don said.

Don asks that when you get your flu shot this year, take a selfie, and post it to social media with #WeCanforLeeann.

This Saturday would have been Leeann's 49th birthday. In her memory, the health department is holding a flu shot clinic at Gibbs High School this Saturday from 9 a.m. to noon.

If you have insurance, bring your insurance card. If you don't have insurance, no one will be turned away.

(© 2016 WBIR)


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