My name is Randy Waltz and I have worked for 34 years as a paramedic in Hendricks County. I have never gotten a flu vaccine. I didn’t think I needed one. But, last January, that decision to bypass the flu vaccine nearly cost me my life. That’s a mistake I will never make again.
I was on duty one evening at the firehouse in Brownsburg when I began to develop a sore throat. By the next morning, I had sinus symptoms and a fever of 100 degrees. Throughout the day, my fever increased until it reached 104 degrees that evening. I went to the emergency room and a chest x-ray confirmed that I had fluid building up in one of my lungs. With influenza being in full-swing in the community, I was checked for flu, but my flu swab came back negative. I was placed on antibiotics and sent home to rest and recover.
The antibiotics did not phase the virus that was now raging in my body. Within 36 hours, I began coughing up pink sputum. From my years as a paramedic, I immediately knew I was in trouble. My wife took me back to the emergency department and another x-ray showed both lungs were now full of pneumonia. I was admitted to the hospital for observation but I continued to deteriorate. A handful of other patients were now showing up at the hospital with the same symptoms as mine. While my flu test for H1N1 came back negative, my medical team felt strongly that I had a strain of influenza.
Since I was having so much trouble breathing, my doctors put me into a medically-induced coma and placed me on a ventilator that would do my breathing for me. I remained on the ventilator for 13 days, lying in a contraption called a “Roto Prone” bed that kept me face down while rotating side to side. The “prone” or face-down position allows the lungs more room to expand. Despite all of the efforts being made to save me, my body was struggling to hang on. My kidneys began shutting down while I was in a coma. I also required a blood transfusion of two pints (I thank the unknown donors who provided that life-saving gift!).
After a lot of prayers from friends and family, things began to turn around for me. When I finally opened my eyes again, I was in a totally different hospital room than I last remembered. My wife had to explain to me that I had been unconscious for 13 days; I had no recollection of anything that happened during that time. In fact today, I’m still piecing together things that transpired during that time.
Confirmed or unconfirmed, the flu virus that took me down left me weak and unable to care for myself. I spent three weeks in the hospital before being released to a rehabilitation facility. I received kidney dialysis three times per week until mid-February when my kidneys finally began to work on their own again. On top of that, my weakened state meant that I had to learn to walk and care for myself all over again; I required four weeks of physical and occupational therapy to rebuild my strength and get back on my feet.
While my story did eventually have a happy ending, my understanding is that others who were hit by the same flu were not so lucky. It breaks my heart to think about the families each year that lose loved ones to the flu. My advice to you is to protect yourself, and your family, by getting a flu vaccine; the vaccine is the single most important thing you can do to avoid getting the flu. Other precautions, such as washing your hands regularly, and keeping your distance from those who are sick, can help protect you as well.
The flu vaccine does help prevent deaths and serious complications from the illness. I will never again take flu season so lightly. This autumn, I will be the first one in line to get my flu vaccine, and my friends on the medical staff are lining up now to be the one who gets to poke me!