When flu season hit in South Louisiana, 30-year-old Stephanie Johnston didn't think too much about it. Pregnant at the time with her son Aiden, getting a flu shot was the last thing on her mind.
Pulmonology and critical care specialist Dr. Hollis O'Neal says a lot of young, healthy people do not see the flu as a major illness and will pass on getting vaccinated. Unfortunately, this year's flu season included a strain- H1N1- that seemed to hit the younger population especially hard.
"Many of these people wound up on mechanical ventilators. Many of them had prolonged critical illnesses. Many of them required dialysis. It was a pretty significant illness this year," said O'Neal.
In late December, during the last weeks of her pregnancy, Johnston came down with the H1N1.
"I just kept coughing and sneezing and I just didn't want to move by the fourth day. That's when we went to the hospital," said Johnston. "The next day I was doing a breathing treatment. Next thing I know, it was like I blacked out. I don't' remember anything after that."
Stephanie's body crashed. Doctors had to deliver her baby via C-section, and she spent nearly two months in a medically induced coma.
"Her lungs were heavily damaged by the flu. She was requiring the mechanical ventilator. When she came into the ICU she was a sick as anybody that we see," said O'Neal.
Several medications were needed to keep her blood pressure and oxygen levels up. Johnston's family says several times they thought the young mother would not live to see her son. But, Johnston pulled through and woke up in February.
"It was shocking to know that my life had just flipped, done a 180 within just a couple of days of being sick," she said.
Being in a coma also takes a toll on the body, and O'Neal says recovery is long. After waking up, Johnston had to relearn to eat, talk and walk, and she is still going through physical therapy. Stephanie says now, protecting herself and her family from the flu will a top priority.
"It's a matter of life and death," said Johnston.
According to state health officials, there were 66 confirmed flu related deaths in Louisiana since October, including 5 children. However, officials also say there could be as many as 650 unconfirmed flu related deaths.
Doctors say during flu season, the best protection is the flu vaccine as well as preventative measures like washing your hands.
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