It was just around the holidays 2014 and I was happy to be coming home to Mitchell, South Dakota for a break from my job. I normally travel more than I stay home, installing satellite communication equipment all over the world. Two weeks after I was home, I got sick with a stuffy nose, cough, and fever. I wasn’t worried about it. By New Year’s I still didn’t feel good and my niece Kyanna bugged me to go see a doctor. We went to Urgent Care. They said I probably had bronchitis. But a couple days later I was feeling even worse.
I called my niece back and she took me to the ER. That ride was about the last thing I remember. I had to find out later from my family. This is what happened…
The first hospital, in Mitchell, flew us to another hospital in Sioux Falls because they were better equipped to deal with me. I’ve got 5 sisters, 2 brothers and my mom. Once the word got out, everyone came out to be with me, even though the weather was miserable.
By now they pretty much knew this was not bronchitis. I was delirious and could hardly breathe. A test came back positive for influenza virus, what we call “the flu.” I had so much fluid in my lungs I couldn’t get enough oxygen. I actually went into congestive heart failure. The doctors actually had to put me into a medically-induced coma to keep me alive.
It’s horrible to imagine how hard this was on my family. My sisters told me that the doctors drained gallons of fluid from my lungs during the first few days. After that, because my heart and lungs were not strong enough to work on their own, the doctors put me on an ECMO machine that basically does the work for the heart and lungs when I was giving out. The doctors first tried connecting the ECMO through my neck. But apparently it wasn’t working well enough. So then they got really drastic, the doctors had to open up my chest and connect the ECMO directly to my heart. Of course I’m in a coma.
Next, they flew me to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester to get me into a cardiac intensive care unit. One of my sisters told me there were other flu patients there too.
I guess I’m lucky I didn’t know what was going on since the doctors had to clean out my chest wounds to fight any more infections pretty much every day. Over the six weeks I was in a coma, my heart stopped three times, my kidneys failed, and I lost over 100 pounds. My sister Leah told me that my heart stopped once when she went to the cafeteria to get some food. I think my family was afraid to leave my side. I can’t blame them.
Think about this. I went to the ER on January 5, 2014. I woke up and it was February 14, all that time gone. That was the first day they took me off the ECMO machine and let me breathe on my own. I didn’t know where I was or what had happened. I was so weak from lying in bed in a coma that I couldn’t move my hands or legs. At first I was just plain confused. Later, when I started to come around, I felt a lot of anger. I was also upset thinking about what I had put my family through. They really stood by me.
They released me from the hospital on February 19. I remember this because it was my 47th birthday. I was full of fresh scars where they’d had to open my stomach and chest to drain out fluid. But I begged my brother to get me out of the hospital. I had a hoarse, raspy, sore voice from being on a breathing tube for so long. Really, I was still kind of a mess.
I couldn’t go home alone. But they let me go to my mom’s house. I stayed there until a place at the rehab hospital opened up. Remember, I was still super weak and needed to re-learn how to walk and my chest was not in great shape. It was still not healed from being opened up.
Road to Recovery
When I was in the Rehab hospital, I started working on building my strength to walk. But while I was there, I got an infection in my chest in one of the incisions and I had to go back to the Mayo Clinic for more surgery. They sent me to the rehab hospital with more IV antibiotics than you have ever seen in your life. I had to be hooked up for months to make sure the infection wouldn’t come back.
My recovery has taken about 1.5 years so far and I’m still not 100%. I have restrictions; half of my chest is numb. I have not been able to go back to a job that requires climbing and lifting because my new limits. But you know what? I’m alive.
Marty’s Message about Flu and Flu Shots
I didn’t get a flu shot. I’d never had one before—just never really thought about it. Well that didn’t work out so well for me. Now I see that as a really big regret. I know there are a lot of people that are exactly like I was. Now that I’ve had this experience, I think maybe others might learn something from what I went through. I’m not here to tell anyone what to do. But I’ll tell you, I never miss getting a flu shot now. And many people who have heard my story tell me they get flu shots just because of me. That makes me feel good.
Also, I wanted to pay forward the kindness I received, so I started Cruisin’ For A Cause, a nonprofit fundraiser that raises money to help one family each year pay for medical expenses due to flu illness or death. Some funds have also been used to help people pay for flu shots.
I just want to raise awareness about flu and help others. If my story prevents one bad flu for someone, somewhere, I’ve done my job.
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