Near-fatal bout with H1N1 spurs Edmonton teacher to promote flu shot

A young Edmonton teacher is speaking out about her close call with the flu in hopes of encouraging people not planning to get a flu shot to change their minds.

“I figure if I can change one person’s mind and save them from the trauma that I went through, that’s important to me,” Jill Burton said.

The mother of three young boys was forced to celebrate her 39th birthday at the Grey Nuns Community Hospital’s intensive care unit (ICU) last winter. She spent weeks in hospital and required major surgery as a result of her bout with the flu.

“I was 100 per cent healthy,” Burton said. “And that’s part of what was so shocking to everybody…the fact that I was so healthy. (That) there were no pre-existing problems before and that this hit me so hard.”

In January, Burton went to see her doctor with what she thought was a cold. She said he told her she had the flu and took an X-ray of her chest. According to Burton, the doctor suggested the X-ray didn’t show anything to be concerned about and told her to rest and drink plenty of fluids.

But things got worse. Soon after, she was admitted to an emergency room with extremely low blood pressure. She said health workers told her they were going to “intubate” her.

Intubation is the process of placing a tube into the body for medical purposes. Typically, intubation refers to the placement of an endotracheal tube to assist the patient when they are not breathing effectively. The tube is placed into the trachea and connected to an assistive device for breathing.

During that time, she said her lungs failed and she was diagnosed with “full-blown pneumonia” which sent her to the hospital’s ICU.

“I know that at one point my sister said to the doctor, ‘she’s going to make it, right?’ And he said, ‘I don’t know at this point.'”

Burton said her organs began to fail and she was placed in a medically-induced coma for two weeks.

“The most terrifying part of this was when I woke up, all I could do was move my eyes. I had no physical movement. Nothing.”

Burton said she couldn’t talk or breathe on her own and eventually had to relearn how to do those things.

Because her situation was considered so uncertain and there was a chance she would not survive, her children came to visit her. At one point, they were forced to wear protective hospital clothing to reduce the risk of getting sick. Burton said the visit was traumatic for them.

“It was frightening to see their mom that sick,” she said. “And to not really understand what was going on.”

Burton later discovered her illness was attributed to a combination of the pneumonia, the H1N1 virus and a blood infection.

When she left the hospital, she was using a walker and later discovered she was suffering from complications in connection with the tracheal procedure she had undergone in order to help her breathe. As a result, she had to go back to hospital for major surgery and spent another ten days there as a patient.

Nine months later, the teacher continues to make regular visits to the Glenrose Rehabilitation Centre as her recovery is ongoing.

“I’ll be getting my flu shot this year,” Burton said, adding it hadn’t been a priority for her in the past because she wasn’t sick often and didn’t like needles.

Alberta kicked off its annual influenza vaccine campaign on Monday.

Free flu shots are now available to all Albertans over the age of six months.

-With files from Su-Ling Goh.

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