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

ECMO has become a vital tool in the battle to save critically-ill flu patients when ventilators alone can't help. Blitz has used it on only his most dire cases.

"They were dying, they were all on death's doorstep, would not have survived no matter what," he said. "Some of these patients would not be around today without that technology."

In some cases, ventilators alone can't help patients breathe. Doctors say that ECMO is needed in about a third of the most serious H1N1 cases. At first, the patients must be induced into a coma to let the body rest and the lungs recover.

Strain on Hospital Staff

Patients like Savitts require round the clock nursing care. In his case, the nurse is ex-Marine Madison Edge, who Savitt's wife Margaret calls her "partner in crime."

"I've been doing this nine years, and I've never seen an influx like this year," Edge said. "I've never seen a flu season like this one here."

The flu is straining the hospital staff, with as much as 20 percent of the nurses out sick here. Pregnant doctors and nurses, those most vulnerable to the virus, have been reassigned. To protect themselves and the patients, the staff must constantly don sterile masks and gowns.

Registered nurse Molly Zerbini takes care of infected children in the pediatric intensive care unit.

"These masks are not the most comfortable thing ever. They're very hot, they're very sweaty, but to protect ourselves and [avoid] transmittal to, particularly, other kids, is priority, so we're dealing with the discomfort of them," Zerbini said.

Influx in Adult Cases of H1N1

At first, in mid-October, the emergency room at Case Medical Center, like others across the country, was flooded with infected children. But now, those pediatric cases have tapered off and the hospital is seeing an increase in the number of adults who have the virus.

"H1N1 for most patients is a relatively benign disease and doesn't progress. But a small percentage of patients can have very, very severe disease and can die from this," Blitz said. "The unfortunate thing about it is that it's not in patients that we can predict with any reliability who gets really sick from it. The ones that we've been seeing here are quite young, in their 30s and 40s, and otherwise very healthy and previously healthy, who come down with H1N1, and within a week's time are on death's door."

Most recover quickly, but experts estimate that in 1 percent of H1N1 cases, the virus attacks the lungs so viciously that vital organs are robbed of oxygen.

"Almost every patient that we have put on artificial support has had not only failed lungs but also failed livers, failed kidneys and even strokes and heart attacks," Blitz said.

Next Step: Recovery, Prayer

Walter Savitts is fortunate that only his lungs were damaged. But nine days after his emergency surgery, he remains in a coma, unable to breathe on his own.

"It gets hard. Some days you just want to cry and cry, but I've got to keep telling myself that he's doing well and it could have turned out a lot worse," Margaret Savitts said.

Blitz said that Savitts' prognosis is good. He estimated a 75 percent chance of survival.

"I think when he came in, without having ECMO, he would have died within 24 hours," Blitz said.

Next door, Bradbury emerged from a deep, induced slumber two weeks after doctors told his wife that he had only a one in a hundred chance to make it.

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