February 6, 2018

Flu Can Lead to Life-Threatening Complications – A True Cautionary Tale

By Karen Vernon

“I didn’t see this coming,” Sharon Maxwell says of the virus that changed her life. “I expected to live a full, healthy, long life, and figured if the end came early, it would be from a riding accident or paddling on a rough river. So mine is a cautionary tale about the flu.”

Sharon, an Asheville native, has lived all across the US and traveled the world. In 2008, she returned to western North Carolina where she enjoyed an active life as a social worker and equestrian, training and competing in dressage. She developed allergy-induced asthma, but didn’t let it slow her down.

In March 2015, Sharon thought she was experiencing another asthmatic event, but it took a sudden turn for the worst. “My symptoms were atypical for flu,” she says. Those symptoms quickly worsened, to the point that within the course of a day she began to need assistance with basic activities like dressing and walking. After consulting with her primary care physician, Sharon’s husband took her to Mission Hospital’s emergency department.

“I don’t even remember arriving at Mission,” Sharon says now. “I credit staff at Mission with recognizing the severity of my symptoms and treating me immediately upon arrival. They saved my life. I can never thank them enough.”

Sharon reports that because of her chronic respiratory issues, she has always been diligent about getting the flu vaccine. She was astounded that as an athletic, healthy 50-something, she had contracted the flu, and says she “rapidly slid downhill and developed pneumonia, secondary pneumonia, multiple organ failure, severe sepsis” and more. “My husband was told to call in the family, as I was not expected to live more than 30 minutes,” she says.

But beating the odds, Sharon did survive. “After eight days unconscious in Mission’s ICU, I regained consciousness but weighed 50 pounds more [due to fluid in the lymphatic system], had zero mobility, and my fingers and toes were black and blue – comparable to a failed high-altitude ascent. How blessed I am not to have had amputations, but I spent another week in ICU, two weeks inpatient at CarePartners Rehab Hospital and two more months as an outpatient.”

Sharon says that even though she had excellent care during her hospitalization and transitioning to home, she has never recovered her former lifestyle. She’s been diagnosed with myalgic encephalomyelitis, chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia, a chronic condition that can follow a severe infection such as the flu or sepsis. She says during her acute illness, sepsis sent her immune system into hyperdrive, and now she can no longer produce the energy she needs at a cellular level. This once active world traveler now sticks close to home, has to rest frequently and is no longer able to work or enjoy many of the activities that were so much a part of her life before the flu.

Determined to make the best of her experiences, Sharon says she asked, “Now what do I do with this? I’m determined to use my illness as a platform for advocacy, to let people know the dangers of the flu. I would hate for anyone to go through what I’ve gone through.”

“Don’t ignore your body’s symptoms,” Sharon says. “Take action sooner, rather than later. And get the flu shot!”

Visit mission-health.org/flu to learn more about flu treatment and prevention.