Flu – The Story of Jenn O'Meara

As I’m sitting in bed with a runny nose, coughing my lungs out, many of these things are hitting little close to home. Whatever your stand on flu shots and vaccines is, one things is for sure – don’t try to be a hero and “work through” a sickness or an injury. You may do more harm than good. Note: some text has been edited to fit the current timeline.

This is a story of Jenn, NP_Boston core and a hard-core.

Few months ago I did something I’ve never done before. I got a flu shot. It happened to be six months to the day I was discharged from the ICU. Vaccinations are a personal and sometimes complicated choice. If you’ve never gotten a flu shot before, I would love for you to reconsider and get one this year.

Prior to last March, I had never spent a night in a hospital, other than when I was a newborn. I’m not cavalier towards my health, but I never thought I needed a flu shot. I rarely get sick. Hearing third-hand stories about people who got sick after receiving a flu shot made me stay away. My logic was warped: I deduced it would be better to wing it than get vaccinated and deal with lingering side effects.

“Winging it” nearly killed me. In early March, I had a cough. I actually remember the cough starting on a Friday afternoon. It was a sunny day and I was on the November Project high that comes from a morning spent on Summit Avenue.

My cough persisted throughout the weekend. It was only a cough – a super annoying cough. I didn’t feel sick in the nasally, mucous-y way. I just had a cough. By Tuesday night I was tired of coughing. I made the decision to bite the bullet and go to the doctor’s because OTC cough syrup wasn’t stopping my cough. I thought I would get a prescription for cough syrup and life would go on.

I spent a miserable morning moving from a Minute Clinic to Urgent Care to my doctor’s office. I would have gone directly to my primary care physician, but I didn’t think I could get an appointment right away and I really wanted to kick this cough. After my doctor took an X-Ray she confirmed her initial diagnosis: I had pneumonia. Since my left lung was entirely white, she said I needed to go right to the Emergency Room.

My doctor’s practice is affiliated with , so I was triaged as soon as I arrived at the ER. They wanted to admit me and I was fine with that. I was willing to do anything to stop the cough. My husband Ben and I had to wait in the ER for a few hours until a room was available. I remember Tweeting and getting berated by my cousin for being on social media. The hospital had even replied to my tweet happy to hear I was getting good care. Let’s just say, this was my last hurrah for a while.

Everything hit the fan after I got admitted and moved into a room. A blood gas check found my oxygen level to be at 70% (point of reference, anything below 92% is low, below 88% means mechanical assistance). I was moved out of a semi-private room into a private observation room. I spent most of the night coughing.

The next morning, Ben thought he was coming to pick me up. He called me to ask if I wanted a coffee and I told him to text me. I was coughing too much to talk. While Ben was on his way to Milford, I was being moved out of my room into the ICU.

In the ICU, I was started on an oxygen mask. After several hours of no improvement, they moved me to a pressurized mask called a bi-pap mask which was Velcroed around my head and fit tightly to my face to get maximum oxygen into my lungs. I’m slightly claustrophobic, so the feeling of the bi-pap mask was the stuff of my own nightmare. One of the last things I remember is Ben trying to calm me down, getting me to consistently breathe. I just couldn’t do it. The day after I was admitted to the ICU (two days after being admitted to the hospital) I was put into a medically induced coma, as well as completely medically paralyzed, and placed on a ventilator. I didn’t wake up until eleven days later.

ICU

This is really Jenn’s story to tell, though I was the one awake for the majority of it, so I will be brief because while it was a terribly long eleven days, there wasn’t much to do except sit there in her room and watch the machines do her breathing for her and look at the vital sign screens make no real change. I never had a doubt Jenn would get better (the flu is just a bad cold, right!? And pneumonia, you get better from that?). Some might call that naïve or overly optimistic, but there was no other outcome but recovery that crossed my mind. My job was to listen and learn from the medical staff and try to translate the messages to the family. The key component here was my stepfather, Patrick, who is a trauma surgeon. He was so great answering any and all questions and helping me decipher the list of drugs Jenn was on (3 antibiotics to go with the paralytic and sedation meds).

They say people in comas can hear you so we were supposed to try to talk to Jenn. She doesn’t remember a damn thing, so who knows if she could hear us. Heck, I think part of it may be reality and the rest is to try to keep some normalcy for the family. Plus, if you know Jenn, it is RARELY a one way conversation. When she was a kid she didn’t talk until she was two years old. Any time I hear a reference to that I say, “didn’t speak until she was two and hasn’t shut up since :)”. Until this happened anyway…

I would be remiss if I did not thank our NP family. The hardest thing for me was telling people about Jenn’s situation. Your typical back and forth with how is anyone doing usually starts with, “How’s old so and so?” followed by, “oh s/he is doing well”. I knew my response to that question was going to illicit a much different reply and I hated doing that to people. Not only did everyone I tell and NP support me, but always checked in to see how Jenn was both while she was in the hospital and as she recovered to the point she could work out again. Special thanks to Bojan for spearheading that feeling and those efforts, as he and BG always do (oh and getting Andrew Ference to tweet a get well to Jenn too)!

After 7 days, the doctors removed the paralytic because she was starting to finally show some signs of improvement. However, this meant the once motionless Jenn with a quiet breathing ventilator, turned into coughing and moving Jenn with an annoying alarm blaring on her ventilator to alert those not in her room that her status took a hit with every coughing fit. So, those days kind of sucked. The payoff is where Jenn picks up now. – Ben

I was gradually brought off of my drug cocktail two weeks after being moved into the ICU. I don’t remember anything during my medical coma, except for super vivid dreams. The dreams ranged from mundane, like being at a hockey game with Ben, to the weird, such as getting chased by a drug cartel. I even had a dream where a geographic mash-up of Hartford and New Haven, CT started a November Project pledge tribe.

ER

I was still on the ventilator at this point. The vent helped me breath, but it was horrible. I couldn’t speak and I couldn’t drink. I’ve never wanted a glass of water so much in my entire life. I was initially in and out of it for the first two days, but by Tuesday, March 25th I was fully aware of my situation. When Ben realized that I was “with it” the first thing he said to me was “We are getting flu shots this year and every year after.” I knew before my late winter sleep that I had pneumonia. When I woke up I found out I had also contracted H1N1 (Bird Flu).

Later on the afternoon of March 25th, I was extubated. This was the best feeling ever! I got to call my best friend, who described this whole situation as #sickjail, and wish her a Happy Birthday on her actual birthday. My voice was froggy but no one cared.

From this point on, things moved pretty rapidly. The ICU team was phenomenal in helping me move up and out. I went through a range of assessments with occupational, physical and speech therapists. The same day I was extubated, my first physical therapist met to asses my muscle control. She was surprised at the amount of leg power I had. I attribute this solely to the Wednesday Stadium workouts. The next morning, was my first morning out of bed in nearly two weeks. I went from learning how to carefully sit to walking in a fancy walker. I was still on supplemental oxygen. The ICU team was amazed I could walk the perimeter of the unit in the fancy walker contraption. I went from being the sickest person in a 10-bed ICU to the healthiest. I was ready to move on.

ICU Wake Up

I got moved to a regular hospital room on March 27th. At this point, I had no idea how much longer I would be in the hospital. Being discharged to a rehab center was the normal protocol for someone in my situation. Due to the noro-virus being in a number of area rehab centers, the recommendation was made to stay in the hospital as long as possible. I thought I would be in the hospital through the weekend. On Friday, March 28th instead of running Summit Ave, I was walking up a small flight of stairs strapped to a physical therapist. I guess I impressed them – later that morning I was told I was going to be discharged. I needed to be discharged with a walker, but I didn’t care. I just wanted to go home.

Except for doctors’ appointments, I spent the month of April sequestered at home. At first, I couldn’t stay home alone (thanks Mom for taking care of me!). I could barely walk up the 13 steps to our second level and I was at risk of falling. But I got better. Daily walks went from going a few houses away from home and back, to the end of the street, to a mile, and more. One of my best post #sickjail days was coming to the Summit Ave workout on Good Friday. Since I was susceptible to germs, I couldn’t even join the high-five brigade. But it felt fantastic to be with the Tribe, outside on a sunny and blistery April morning.

The flu shot doesn’t entirely protect us from contracting the flu. I may have still ended up in the hospital, but I probably would have avoided an ICU stay. I feel extremely careless that I never received a flu shot until living through this massive wake-up call. While the flu shot can personally protect you, it is also designed to protect “the herd”. Infants, people with compromised immune systems and those with autoimmune diseases can’t get the shot. In most instances, the flu shot is free – there are no out-of-pocket expenses. The biggest inconvenience might be in waiting to receiving the shot, which doesn’t hurt.

I wasn’t the only 40-something to battle pneumonia/the flu. In Massachusetts, a disproportionate number of healthy patients in their 30s and 40s also contracted this tricky virus last season. Some even died.

If you can, #verbal and get a flu shot this year. Ben and I would hate for someone else to live through our March #sickjail adventure.

Flu Shot

Flu Shot Ben

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7 Replies to “Flu – The Story of Jenn O'Meara”

  1. What an incredible story- glad you are better! 
    Just want to clarify something for all the readers out there- H1 N1 is not the bird flu, it is the swine flu. It is covered with the flu vaccine but bird flu (H5N1) is NOT covered with the flu vaccine. 

  2. FYI, while the Jenn’s term use may have been incorrect with the lay name of H1N1 (Bird vs. swine), the flu shot is your best protection against H1N1.   The major point of Jenn’s post is that her situation might have been much less critical has she had the flu shot paired with coming to November Project.

    Don’t take my word for it, see here:
    http://www.flu.gov/about_the_flu/h1n1/

  3. Wow! I had no idea what was happening with you.

    Thanks for sharing your story & encouraging others to get a flu shot.

    So glad you’re feeling better!

    And yes, I did get a flu shot this year. (As a fundraiser for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, my worst nightmare would be passing on something like the flu to a person that has Cystic Fibrosis.)

  4. Wow! I had no idea of the extent of what you had gone through. Thank you for sharing your story. So glad you are better now! I get a Flu Shot every year!

  5. Wow Jenn. I am reconsidering my views on the flu shot. I haven’t had the flu in over 20 years and never had a flu shot. I think next year i will be getting one for sure.

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