Niagara Falls turned orange on the night of Jan. 18 with spotlights the favorite color of an 11-year-old local boy who died from influenza A—despite having been in excellent health, getting a flu shot, and receiving prompt, best-of-the-best medical care.
Luca Calanni’s parents and everybody else involved had done everything right. He had still gone from giving a stellar basketball performance on a Saturday to suffering catastrophic cardiac arrest early the following Thursday morning.
Yet even after the nation’s 33rd pediatric influenza death this flu season was memorialized in the most public way by tinting the thundering falls, there was no public panic. There was no mass buying of face masks as there has been in more recent days in fearful anticipation of the new coronavirus, which so far has not been known to kill any Americans of any age. Flu has killed more than 10,000 in the United States so far this season, and the death toll may exceed 60,000, but the items that flew off the shelves after Luca’s death were lightbulbs of his favorite hue.
“You couldn’t get an orange lightbulb at Lowe’s or Home Depot,” the boy’s father, Roger Calanni, told The Daily Beast on Wednesday. “They sold out in western New York.”
And the widespread oranging of streets and residences in the fifth grader’s hometown of Lake View, NY as well as the falls was prompted not by how Luca died but by how he lived.
He was known for introducing himself by holding out his hand, looking you right in the eye, and saying, “Hi, I’m Luca Calanni! I’m glad to meet you.” And he was sure to do this if he saw a kid who was left out or reluctant to join in.
As he played basketball, soccer, lacrosse, and golf, he was always ready to call out an encouraging “Nice try!” He once advised a teammate who was a little too exuberant in enjoying a victory, “Sometimes it is more important to win with class than it is to lose with class.”
At one camp session, Luca began each morning talking to a youngster who had special needs. And if that youngster sat out an activity, Luca would join him.
One day when Luca was with some friends at a playground, his father saw him step away from his buddies and go up to another boy. His father quietly checked to make sure all was well.
“Your friends are over there,” the father remembers noting.
“They’re OK,” Luca replied. “This kid was playing by himself and I didn’t want him to play by himself.”
Luca seemed to be forever demonstrating how right his parents had been to choose a name that means “Giver of Light.” He continually performed kindnesses that his maternal grandfather termed “random acts of Luca.”
And in his sensitivity to the misfortune of others, he appreciated all the more his own general good fortune. An unexpected bit of added good luck came when he awakened to news that his father had acquired an extra ticket to the big football game between the Buffalo Bills and the Pittsburgh Steelers on Dec. 15.
“He jumped right out of bed,” the father recalled.
Luca voiced an appreciation for all his blessings when he and his father stopped at a gas station during the days between Christmas and the New Year. Luca noted a sign in the window announcing the latest jackpots for Powerball and Mega Millions.
“Dad, if we win the lottery, can we start a foundation to help kids who aren’t as lucky as me and a lot of my friends?” Luca asked.
On Saturday, Jan. 4, Luca seemed exactly himself as he played as No. 5 with the Little Cagers basketball team. The first sign that anything was amiss came that Sunday afternoon, when he lay down on the sofa. The high energy, go-go-go youngster did something he never did.
“He took a nap,” the father remembered. “I said, ‘Are you feeling OK?’ He said, ‘I’m just feeling tired.’”
That Monday morning, he was clearly ill and his parents took him along with his younger sisters—aged 9 years and 3 months—to their longtime pediatrician. All three children tested positive for influenza A. The doctor prescribed Tamiflu, along with Gatorade and lots of water.
That Tuesday, Luca awoke with his face slightly swollen. His parents took him back to the doctor, who determined that he otherwise seemed fine and suggested it may have been an allergic reaction to the Tamiflu. He returned home and there still seemed no cause for worry as the father flew off on a work trip.
“No temperature,” the father recalled “Eating, drinking, normal spirits.”
On Wednesday, Luca seemed ill again. His mother, Ashley Calanni, took him straight back to the doctor. Luca was admitted to Oishei Children’s Hospital and placed in intensive care with what was determined to be early septic shock.
The father immediately headed back and went straight to the hospital. He and the mother sat with Luca, holding his hand and giving him back rubs.
The sepsis was receding, and the doctors told the parents that they expected to transfer Luca out of intensive care in the morning. The doctors figured the boy would be home in a few days and could even be back to playing basketball by the weekend.
The father would remember that Luca was in good spirits.
“His usual self,” the father recalled. ”Talking and laughing.”
Around 10 p.m., the mother prepared to head home and tend to their 3-month-old daughter. She told Luca she would see him in the morning.
“I love you,” the mother said.
“I love you,” Luca said.
The father stayed and prepared to sleep on a kind of love seat in the room.
“When you wake up in the morning, you are going to be moving to another room,” the father remembered telling Luca. “I’ll give you a good long back rub.”
“OK, dad,” Luca said,
The father settled back on the love seat. He could hear Luca adjusting the hospital bed up and down.
“Are you comfortable?” the father asked.
“Yes,” Luca said.
“I love you,” the father said.
”I love you, too, Dad,” Luca said.
The father drifted off, only to be startled awake in the early morning. A medical team had surrounded Luca’s bed and urgent voices were calling out.
“We need a board!”
“Get the bed down!”
The father watched someone start chest compressions on his son, who had gone into cardiac arrest in his sleep.
Luca was kept alive with machines, but he never awoke.
Scans that had been clear earlier had suddenly shown his heart and lungs to be full of fluid. The doctors would figure that a virus had attacked his heart.
At 1:44 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 11—a week after that basketball game when he had seemed exactly himself, six days after that uncharacteristic nap, and five days after he first was ill enough to be taken to a doctor—Luca was pronounced dead.
As the father left the hospital, a memory suddenly shone bright through his grief and shock. He recalled the moment at the gas station in late December when Luca said he wanted to start a foundation for kids less lucky than himself.
The father now exclaimed, “We’re going to start a foundation! That’s what he wanted. That’s what we’re going to do.”
“You don’t have to be a billionaire to start a foundation,” the father told The Daily Beast. “Obviously, we aren’t.”
One of the early donors apologized for only being able to put in $250. The father told the man that was more than enough to help send a kid to camp or provide other kids with cleats or sporting event tickets or other random acts of Luca.
Word spread about Luca and the foundation. Along with learning that his favorite food was sushi and smoked salmon, and his favorite song was “Here Comes the Sun” by the Beatles, people learned that his favorite color was orange.
And so, on the night of the funeral, Niagara Falls was turned orange in honor of the Giver of Light. Orange lights shone in streets and houses. The Luca S. Calanni Foundation continued to grow.
“It’s our light at the end of a very dark tunnel,” the father said.
No flu panic swept the Lake View area or other places in America even as the pediatric death toll for this year rose to 68, markedly higher than the same time last year. The death of a 2-year-old from Park Slope in Brooklyn in December caused barely a ripple in the neighborhood.
But with the end of January came talk of a new threat, coronavirus. The pharmacy nearest to the ill-fated little girl’s home reported that there had been no surge in face mask sales after her death. But the entire stock vanished as talk of coronavirus filed the news.
“Sold out,” the cashier at Bare Essentials said.
Up by Niagara Falls, people began fretting about the large population of Chinese immigrants across the border in Canada. Students at the University of Buffalo worried aloud about what the school was doing to protect them.
All that, even though there had not been a single confirmed case of coronavirus in New York state and no American deaths at all, while thousands have died from the flu.
Of the threat posed by viruses both all too familiar and brand new, Roger Calanni said, “You can’t panic.”
He allowed, “Tragedies happen to good people all the time.”
For them, it had happened even though by every indication they had done all they could. The father had asked one doctor what the chances were of Luca falling victim to such circumstances.
“He said, ‘In the millions,’” the father recalled.
But happen it had, as it will with many more people who catch the flu, as it may or may not with people who catch coronavirus. Nature is, among other things, a very bad neighborhood.
Luca leaves us with a way to respond to the worst of luck and even the most tragic loss. You can start a foundation of your own, or maybe just be one, performing random acts of Luca. Roger Calanni remembered something he would tell his marvelous son.
“I used to say, ‘Buddy, you know you’re going to make a difference someday,’” the father recalled. “I thought it would be in life, but it’s going to be in death through the way he lived.”