Cecilia’s Story

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I watched my beautiful wife lay in that hospital bed fighting for her life for eight agonizing days.

CeciliaHeadshotMy Beautiful wife

I met Cecilia online and it was like we were made for each other. We were a perfect match! I took this Southern California beauty who had graduated from Santa Ana High and I married her in 2013.  We were as happy as any couple could be. Cecilia was a successful realtor, and we set up house just across the California-Mexico border in a town called Rosarito. This allowed me, an ex-Marine, to come back to San Diego regularly to seek Veteran’s Administration (VA) services.

In Spring 2016, during a visit to San Diego, I got sick with the flu. Of course they had asked me at the VA if I wanted a flu shot, but I said no. Neither Cecilia nor I ever get sick. Besides, I had some vague memory of feeling ill after a flu shot about 5 years earlier and that was it. I figured I had no need for vaccines. Cecilia simply never thought about getting a flu shot. She was never sick. It was somethinCecilaandMichaelg she, like me, was pretty sure didn’t apply to a healthy adult.

So, I got pretty sick in April, with a miserable array of body aches, fever, runny nose, and cough. But I was lucky. My flu only lasted for about 5 days.


Cecilia feels unwell

Cecilia started to show signs of the flu, runny nose, body aches and pains, for about 36 hours. I CeciliaLipThought: oh well, now it’s her turn now. However, Cecilia had this very odd symptom. Her upper lip swelled up, like something awful. We were back in Rosarito. She got some medication from the doctor to help the pain and swelling, which lasted nearly a week. But she still didn’t feel that good. She started to have some difficulty breathing so we went back to the doctor. Eight, or nine days had elapsed since the first flu symptoms. This time, the doctor gave her an injection to help to open up her airways, because her chief complaint now was shortness of breath. Then we went back home again. Of course I was worried, but we thought we had it under control. The swelling in her lip went down and the shortness of breath seemed much better.

At the hospital

About 30 hours later, Cecilia was in terrible distress. She’d been in bed for the last day and a half and she was short of breath again, breathing very rapidly, and very shallow. She kept insisting that she didn’t want to go to the hospital. But it was clear something was very wrong. She was so weak, she couldn’t even walk. A friend came over and we carried Cecilia to the car and drove her straight to the ER. At this point, I was completely dumbfounded and started to get really scared. That’s because I had no idea until now that Cecilia was so sick. She had been seen by two different doctors, and there was no indication we could see that she was seriously ill. Everyone had been focusing on her swollen lip. In 36 hours, she went from not feeling very good to being very, very, ill.

CeciliaXray1At the hospital, a chest x-ray showed one lung was completely covered in puss and fluid from an infection. Doctors explained that all that time she’s had a simple cold sore, she’d also had the influenza virus replicating inside her body and it had hit her full force, completely overpowering her body’s ability to fight the influenza infection. Antiviral medications need to be introduced within the first 48 hours of the onset of flu symptoms to be effective.

The doctor also said something else I will never forget: “If she had been vaccinated against influenza, there was a 90% chance she wouldn’t be here like this.”

She was rushed by ambulance from the ER to the local general hospital where they had to put her into a medically-induced coma. They intubated her and put her on a ventilator since she was unable to breathe on her own. She was put in an isolation room with all those tubes and the ventilator doing her breathing for her. I couldn’t bear the sound of that machine, chugging away.

I visited twice a day with friends for support. They would leave me alone to watch Cecilia and talk to her through the window of her room. I spent the time trying to give her encouragement, even though it was hard to even look at her in that condition. I believed in my heart she would pull through because she was young and strong. The priest came. I asked for prayers from everyone I knew. I watched my beautiful wife lay in that hospital bed fighting for her life for eight agonizing days. It was the hardest thing I have ever endured, worse than combat. Then her kidneys started to fail, and on the morning of the eighth day, at 7:30 in the morning, her body couldn’t fight any more. In the end, Cecilia died of pneumonia complications of her influenza virus.

My message about flu and flu shots

It is painful to grasp that complications of the regular seasonal flu killed the perfectly healthy 45-CeciliaB&Wyear old love of my life. It seems impossible that this should happen in the 21st Century with all our modern medicine.  But what hurts the most is knowing this was likely preventable. We did not use the best medical tool we have available: an annual flu shot. I now know, too late, that the flu virus is aggressive, sneaky, and potentially deadly.  I will have to face the rest of my life without the woman I loved, because we trivialized the flu.

My wish in telling Cecilia’s story is to let other adults know that no one is invincible because you are young, strong, or healthy. In San Diego County alone during the past year’s flu season, 67 adults died from flu, 25 of those were between 35-64. I wish I had known all this before losing my wife. For Cecilia’s sake, my message is: a flu shot can save your life.

Michael Pulgini

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