H1N1 Cases: Healthy to Death's Door in One Week

On one floor of the University Hospital Case Medical Center in Cleveland, the H1N1 virus is showing just how random, powerful and destructive it can be, even for healthy adults in the prime of their lives.

Walter Savitts, 44, depends on a machine for every breath. His wife, Margaret, is constantly at his side. Nearly three weeks ago, he came down with what seemed an ordinary case of the flu.

"I just figured you're going to get the 24 hour bug or something like that. I never thought that it would turn out to be something like this," Margaret said.

Critical Care

The truck driver had been in excellent health until that October morning.

"Just a fever, small cough. Not a big thing," Margaret told "Nightline." "By Monday, he started saying his chest was hurting so he went to the emergency room. ... They told him he had the flu and sent him home. ... By Thursday, he was in so much pain at 3 a.m. that he went back to the hospital and they said that he had full flown pneumonia ...and by 2 a.m. Monday morning he was in full respiratory failure."

In the next hospital room, 34-year-old Robert Bradbury floated in and out of consciousness. Except for an asthma attack six years ago, he, too, had been healthy and strong before the virus took hold.

"We are young people, young healthy people, athletic," said Robert's wife, Candice Murton-Bradbury. "He plays volleyball. We are out a lot, we walk, and he's a nonsmoker, you know, all the things that they tell you to take care of yourself."

Slightly more than three weeks ago, after a night of celebrating with his wife and colleagues, the Ohio restaurant manager fell asleep at work.

"I guess he lay down at work and never got up again," Murton-Bradbury said. "And was just very incoherent and not with it."

Co-workers took Bradbury to an emergency room the morning of Tuesday, Oct. 20. Due to the severity of his illness, doctors decided to send him to Case Medical Center for more advanced treatment.

Doctor: 'He Was Pretty Much Dead When He Came In'

Bradbury and Savitts were airlifted from smaller hospitals to Case Medical Center, where they arrived in critical condition, barely able to breathe.

Dr. Arie Blitz, a surgeon and medical professor, treated both men. He said when Bradbury arrived, his vital organs were failing.

"He was pretty much dead when he came in," Blitz said. "He developed something that I have never seen before in medicine ... four things at once. ... He had H1N1 flu. He developed a big pulmonary embolism, which is a clot that was sent off to the lung. He had a heart attack, and he had a stroke all at the same time."

Blitz told Bradbury's wife that her husband had a 1 percent chance of survival. "They pretty much informed all of us that he wasn't going to survive," Murton-Bradbury said. "One of the vascular surgeons came out and gave me his wedding ring, which was terrible, to say the least."

Savitts wasn't doing much better. His lungs were so badly damaged, according to Blitz, that it was as if they'd been torn to pieces. Both men were beyond the help of ventilators, so doctors performed emergency surgery, called extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, or ECMO.

"The goal of ECMO is to do two things. One is to rest the lungs so we can let it repair itself and two, provide the oxygen needs of the body and get rid of the carbon dioxide waste product of the body," Blitz said.

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