A few weeks ago, I got my first flu vaccine at the age of 36. Before this year, I’d never considered it. A lot of things changed this year.
In January, my husband, Charlie, and I got the flu. We thought we’d ride it out and be back to normal in a week, but a week turned into two and we weren’t getting better. I took Charlie to the emergency room in the middle of the night on January 27. His fever was soaring, and he was curled up in the corner experiencing what seemed like hallucinations, babbling incoherently. Despite how sick I was feeling, adrenaline and the urge to protect him took over. Within 15 minutes of his intake in the ER, Charlie was put into a medically-induced coma. In those 15 minutes, my world came to a screeching halt.
It turned out Charlie was no longer only dealing with the flu; this was pneumonia. But Charlie’s body apparently wasn’t content with just pneumonia. While we’d been curled up on the sofa with chicken broth and popsicles, there was a hostile takeover going on inside him. A strep infection slipped into his bloodstream, spreading rapidly and poisoning every organ until he was septic. One by one, his organs were dying. Doctors said if we’d waited a couple of hours more, Charlie wouldn’t have survived long enough to get to the hospital.
I wouldn’t wish the next 36 hours on anyone.
Charlie was 38 and healthy, up until a few days earlier.
And in less than an hour since we made the decision to go to the ER, he was in a coma in a tiny hospital room with space for one visitor and a dozen machines keeping him alive.
Total organ failure. Regular blood transfusions. Septic shock.
Three sleepless days pacing the waiting room and alternating shifts next to his bed. And a doctor telling me to start making funeral arrangements so I “wasn’t blindsided.”
Charlie’s mom made me go home for a few hours to rest. When I woke up, my back hurt so bad that I blacked out when I tried to sit up. A friend took me to urgent care. She carried me from the car to the waiting room because moving hurt so much. I had pneumonia too, and the intense pain I was feeling in my lower back was possibly due to my kidneys starting to shut down, according to the urgent care nurse. She encouraged me to go to the hospital but I refused.
“We can’t both be in there,” I said. “Someone needs to be ready to bring him home soon.” I was running a high fever. Nothing had sunk in.
I was barred from seeing Charlie for the next 10 days while I ran through a course of antibiotics, so the germs I carried wouldn’t spread to him and kill him. As I recovered, everything started to hit me. The person I’d leaned on for more than half my life wasn’t there. I didn’t know if he would be again. Our friends left soup and Gatorade on the porch. I refused to see anyone, paranoid I’d send them to the hospital to die, too. I slept on the sofa; it felt too strange to be in the bed alone.
Charlie was still in a coma when I got the all-clear to see him February 10. I sat next to his bed and waited for the doctors to stop the medications that kept him in a coma. And then waited a few days more for him to wake up and come back to me.
The first thing he struggled to say over the feeding and breathing tubes in his mouth, drifting between drugs and being awake was, “I love you too.” I’d told him I loved him in the emergency room two weeks earlier as he went under. It was the last thing he remembered, and he was replying as if I said it just a second before.
We spent Valentine’s Day in the ICU playing “Real or Not Real”—Charlie would tell me something he thought he remembered or dreamed in his coma and I would tell him if it had really happened.
The next few weeks in the ICU were slow.
He still had a breathing tube and was hooked to machines that forced his kidneys to work, putting “food” in his stomach that looked like a bottle of pancake batter. Charlie hates pancakes.
February was a purgatory of waiting and tiny victories. I gauged improvement by how long the doctors were making plans for Charlie’s care: four hours, 12 hours, two days. It seemed as if the longer the plan, the better his odds became. One of his doctors asked him, “What’s causing you pain?” and he pointed to me with a twinkle in his eye. That’s the moment we knew his humor had come through intact and he was actively fighting to get better. I rolled my eyes and went back to helping him work on holding a pen. He liked to make the hospital staff laugh with inappropriately timed humor.
Charlie had lost 40 pounds, nearly all of it muscle. But he was awake and stabilizing. As the doctors described it, while he was comatose, his brain had been shut down along with every other organ. The neurological pathways that connected his brain to his muscle memory had been dormant and disconnected so long that the wiring had decayed, leaving him as helpless as a toddler. He had to relearn how to talk, how to hold a pen, how to feed himself.
The next few weeks were spent in the ICU trying to lower his constant fever and continuously draining the bacteria-laced fluid that surrounded his lungs. He had another surgery to implant a tube through his abdomen into his stomach to “eat,” because his esophagus was so weak he couldn’t swallow without choking.
In March, Charlie started physical therapy in the hospital to learn to walk again. Three machines were still attached to him, and I or a nurse would pull them along as he shuffled first across the hospital room, then, eventually, around the halls of the ICU third floor. Once his organs had recovered and were working on their own, he spent another three weeks in a nursing facility for physical therapy to help him transition to “real life.”
Charlie came home in April, two days before his 39th birthday, with a stomach tube, a walker, a shower chair, and dozens of medications.
He’d been hospitalized for a total of 58 days. For most of that first day home, his cat sat in his lap, purring and looking up at him in total adoration.
There were two more months of physical therapy, in-home nurses, and weekly specialist visits. In May, the thousand-yard-stare faded. It was another week before he laughed. You don’t notice how frequent and important those little things are until they simply aren’t there. He grew stronger slowly and surely. He grew a beard. He was smug about fitting into smaller pants. We celebrated with ice cream when he made it around the block without a walker.
It wasn’t until September that he was back at work full-time and said he felt like himself.
Everything about our life looks normal now. You’d never guess that Charlie almost died a few months ago. We both wake up in the night sometimes, disoriented and afraid that “normal” life is a dream and he’s still sick. We know that part will take a while to heal; it’s hard to let go of the paranoia you needed to survive.
While I’d like to tell you what we went through was a fluke, it wasn’t.
In an average flu season, more than 200,000 people are hospitalized. Between 12,000 and 56,000 people will die. Those numbers are easy to dismiss until it's someone you love.
The 2017-2018 flu season was particularly terrible: 710,000 people were hospitalized, and the CDC estimates that more than 80,000 died, some of which were considered typical at-risk demographics, like elderly persons. The rest could have been like us—young, healthy. Also, a record low number of adults got the flu shot last year. Coincidence?
It’s just the beginning of the 2018-2019 flu season, and you don’t want what happened to Charlie to happen to you, or anyone you care about, believe me. So if you’re someone like me, who has forgone getting a flu shot up until now, or if you’re holding back from getting yours this year for any reason, forget the excuses.
As you may have heard, while a flu shot doesn’t guarantee you won’t get the flu, it helps to ensure that if you do get the flu, it won’t be as severe. A flu shot won’t make you sick with the flu. Your arm might be sore at the injection site, and you might have a low fever for a day, but those are minor inconveniences compared to the full-blown flu. Hating needles is also not an excuse anymore. This year, the nasal vaccine is back after being off the market for two years for improvements. It’s efficacy is now on par with the shot.
Talk to your doctor about these things, and any other skepticism or hesitation you may be feeling. Your health and the health of others is at stake.
Charlie and I both got the flu vaccine this year because neither of us wanted to put the other through what we’d lived this year.
If you’re hesitant to get the shot for your own health, consider how it will benefit someone else. Do it for herd immunity. Do it for the people who would sit by your hospital bed. Do it for the people who love you.
I want to do my part so that, just maybe, someone else won’t have to go through what we went through. Charlie and I started tweeting about our experience with the hashtag #GetAFluShot, and we’ve been overwhelmed by the responses. Dozens of people who’d never bothered with a flu vaccine said that they got one because of us. I’d like to think at least one of those people won’t be in the hospital this year because of that choice. Because of our story.
We were lucky. Eighty thousand people last year weren't. Don’t bet on luck.