Swine Flu survivor's ordeal

By Patrick O'Sullivan

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Swine Flue survivor Karen Cherrie has memory of the week she was ill at home before going into coma. Photo / Paul Taylor
Swine Flue survivor Karen Cherrie has memory of the week she was ill at home before going into coma. Photo / Paul Taylor

Karen Cherrie did not realise she had lost one month of her life to swine flu until she woke up with her twin sister hugging her.

She has no memory of the week she spent sick before admission to Hawke's Bay Hospital.

The 56-year-old accounts clerk normally walked one hour a day until illness struck at work.

"On March 6, I had an awful cough and wasn't feeling well so one of the girls at work took me home early," she said.

"That's the last thing I remember until I woke up in intensive care about four weeks later."

Two days after being driven home from work her sister Nikki took her to a weekend medical centre.

"They said I had pneumonia and put me on antibiotics."

She wasn't getting any better so went back but was told her pneumonia had gone and was sent home.

"I felt miserable -- well I must have been because I went to the doctor's twice."

Two days later Nikki made a morning visit.

"She wasn't happy so she rang me several times in the morning and couldn't get me so she came back at lunchtime and I was unconscious.

"The ambulance guys told her I would have been dead within two hours if she hadn't come back."

The next morning she was put on to life support and tested for a wide variety of possible ailments. Her pneumonia had returned and five days later the test for swine flu (H1N1) returned positive from the Christchurch lab.

When she woke up from her coma she said she did not know where she was: "I didn't even know I was in the hospital.

"The first thing I remember is my sister hugging me and telling me that I had been desperately ill and that I was getting better. But that's the first thing I remember from the day I went home from work. I couldn't believe it -- I was gobsmacked.

"I was relieved to find out for sure where I was -- I thought I was dreaming."

She had a tracheotomy tube in her neck she had to hold in to try and speak, a bald patch on her head where it rested on the pillow, and she could not stand up.

"Nikki immediately told me that my cat was safe, my job was safe and things were being looked after.

"My main worry was that I hadn't realise how very sick I was to start with -- that is what upset me."

Doctors said the 56-year-old's high fitness level was a factor in her survival. She walked for one hour every day.

"I do a huge amount of gardening at my place and my sister's.

"I was upset about not being able to walk. I couldn't even write to start with or talk so I really, really pushed it.

"I took home a walker, crutches and a seat for the shower but I never used any of them."

This week she resumed work at Somerset Smith Partners, where she needs to wear a wrist brace to be able to write.

She said she would recover fully with regular physiotherapy sessions to regain movement after one month in bed, but her pulse was currently elevated and she had a mild cough.

"I went for my six-week check-up last week and he was really pleased with me. There is a bit of scarring in my lungs but the first thing he said was, 'you look better than I thought you would'."

She said she had learned a hard lesson and would always get a flu vaccine in future.

The vaccine is no guarantee of good health but it does guarantee protection from known serious viruses in circulation, like the one that nearly took her life.

"It just came out of the blue -- if I wasn't a fit person it would have been worse."

She said patients should have limited patience when seeking treatment for sickness. "If you don't recover after visiting the doctor, you should return."

- HAWKES BAY TODAY

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