'I've Never Felt So Scared': The Faces of H1N1

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Ten-year-old Benjamin Oback has the typical face of the emerging swine flu pandemic in its more serious stages. In Sacramento, Calif., he lies in the critical care unit at the University of California at Davis Children's Hospital.

His parents pray and stand vigil. For nearly two weeks, their son has been fighting for his life.

"I feel awful. I feel like part of my soul has been crushed," said Benjamin's father Eric Oback. "It's the worst imaginable feeling to see your kid fall that quickly and to be that ill. The night that he went to the emergency room was the scariest moment I've had in my entire life."

It started out like a normal flu. On Sunday, Oct. 4, after riding his bike, Benjamin felt out of breath.

"On Sunday, he complained his chest hurt," said Oback.

'He Became Unresponsive'

"Benjamin was seen to have a minor case of the flu," his mother Julie Oback said. "I had taken Benjamin to his pediatrician Tuesday morning because he had a mild fever. His pediatrician listens to his lungs. He said his lungs were clear. I asked him about giving him Tamiflu, and he said, 'No, he's not that sick. He should be better by the end of the week.' Nine hours later, he took a turn for the worse, and he became unresponsive."

Benjamin had passed out and was rushed to the hospital.

"So that night, Tuesday night [and] early Wednesday morning was the worst," said Julie Oback. "And it looked like it was touch and go for quite a while. But they were finally able to stabilize him; since then, they've generally kept him stable."

"This wasn't the normal course. Most people who get H1N1 are fine, but you don't know who's going to take a turn for the worse," said Julie Oback. "That's what's so scary about it."

"In Benjamin's case, the main symptom was that fluid built up on the outside of his lung rather than the inside of his lung, and I think that's probably why his pediatrician didn't catch it with a stethoscope, because the fluid on the outside doesn't gurgle when you breath," Benjamin's father said. "I think the fluid outside caused his lung to collapse and stop functioning."

Already, H1N1 is proving far more deadly for children than the seasonal flu.

"When Benjamin first presented to UC Davis, he was gravely ill," said Dr. Joanne Natale, who treated Benjamin at the hospital. "He wasn't conscious. He wasn't making sense. He was not able to speak to us. Now, he's recovered significantly. He's able to interact."

From the Playground to Intensive Care

Like Benjamin, nearly half the kids admitted to hospitals with a case of the virus wind up in intensive care. At Children's Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, Mo., 8-year-old Grace Silva-Rivera was breathing with a ventilator Tuesday.

"When she arrived here, she was pretty ill. She needed to be supported with mechanical ventilation, a breathing tube. Her blood pressure was not good," said Dr. Erica Molitor Kirsch, a pediatric ICU physician, who treated Grace.

Grace's mother, Yanira Silva, said her daughter -- who already suffered from asthma -- developed flulike symptoms at the end of September.

"She started with a headache, and I gave her medication for that. A couple hours later, she started with a high fever," she said. With her daughter's fever at 102, Silva took her to a small hospital at Fort Riley, Kan. At the time, her husband, Sgt. Emilio Silva, was in Baghdad. Silva said Grace was treated for bronchitis, and then sent home.

Despite taking medication religiously, she went downhill fast: her lungs filled with fluid, her breathing became troubled, her toes and fingers went cold, her temperature dangerously high.

At this point, Yanira Silva said Grace's temperature had spiked yet again. "Grace had a very, very high fever. 104.4. I gave her medication."

After yet another trip to the emergency room, her mother demanded, and the hospital agreed to have Grace transferred to a bigger facility, Children's Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, Mo., 130 miles away.

The hospital where Grace was initially treated said in a statement yesterday that she did not show her more severe symptoms until her very last visit there.

Prayers Around the Clock

That night, a Medevac helicopter made the emergency trip. A respiratory test confirmed the diagnosis that doctors suspected: H1N1.

"She has severe pneumonia. She has an underlying problem with asthma so that makes her a little more susceptible to the more severe disease," said Dr. Christopher Harrison, director of the Infectious Disease Laboratory at Children's Mercy.

Mother Prays for Recovery

For the last two weeks, Grace's mother has stayed at her bedside, nearly around the clock, praying for her recovery, with the hospital chaplain and her daughter's nurse, Angela.

Last week, the Army granted Grace's father leave from the war in Iraq to join the battle his daughter faced in Missouri.

"That's the worst feeling that you can feel," he said. "Since I was there, I've never felt so scared about anything."

Grace's 8-year-old twin sister Faithsy, was also infected, but did not get seriously ill. Most of the children in intensive care have underlying medical problems and exhibit severe symptoms.

"If you have anything that makes you think that you've got pneumonia," said Harrison. "So, if you start breathing faster than usual, you can't get your breath, a cough that won't stop. ... And children can look anxious when they're anxious about their breathing. That's something you need to go in and see about right away."

'Keep a Close Eye on Your Children'

Across the country, emergency rooms and ICU's are already inundated.

"Currently we may have up to six patients in our 16 bed ICU," said Natale. "My fear is that most of my units beds will be filled with H1N1 patients."

After his near death experience, Benjamin's prognosis is good. His mother said she's learned a valuable lesson along the way.

"Please do not think that this can't happen to your child," she said. "Keep a close eye on your children. When they have a cold, when they have a temperature, please keep a closer eye on them. If I was not keeping a closer eye on Benjamin, he would be dead right now."

Grace is getting better, too -- fighting those tubes, squeezing her mother's hand and trying to breathe on her own. For now, these children are winning the battle that is overcoming so many, who are so young.

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