Health Care

'Devastated and scared': Here's a glimpse at what flu victims have endured

Kansas Citians feel the wrath of the flu

2017 was the worst flu season the country has seen in years and many in the Kansas City area have not escaped the influenza A and B viruses. Despite being cautious, local residents, Jessica Cunningham and her son, Callan, 2, Mark Van Baale, 43, and
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2017 was the worst flu season the country has seen in years and many in the Kansas City area have not escaped the influenza A and B viruses. Despite being cautious, local residents, Jessica Cunningham and her son, Callan, 2, Mark Van Baale, 43, and

Kansas City resident Donna Abrought has suffered through many health issues in her 61 years, including chemotherapy that left her feeling wiped out and unable to eat or drink.

But getting the flu this year was almost as bad.

"This flu hit me so hard, and I didn’t know it was coming,” Abrought said from her hospital bed at Truman Medical Center.

The United States is having its worst flu season in years, even matching the 2009-2010 swine flu pandemic, and Kansas City has felt it. At some point, both Missouri and Kansas have led the nation in percentage of people with flu-like symptoms, according to data collected by a "smart thermometer" company.

The good news is the flu appears to be waning in most of the country, though medical professionals say it's still at higher levels than usual for this time of the year.

Three Kansas Citians The Star spoke with say it's pretty awful, no matter what your age or your overall health. They offer their stories to commiserate with those who have experienced it, and to offer encouragement to those who may still get the bug.

Jessica Cunningham, 40, and her son Callan, 2

Jessica Cunningham's son, Callan, is back to toddling about, grinning and dragging around a teddy bear that's about as big as he is.

It's a far cry from earlier this month when the 2-year-old came down with the flu and spiked a fever of 104 degrees.

“He was burning hot," Cunningham said. "He was uncomfortable; not what I would call really cranky, he wasn’t crying, he was just uncomfortable.”

But Callan wasn't showing other symptoms that Friday, other than being uncharacteristically clingy and lethargic.

"He’s usually a very independent kid, and when he’s sick he’s just cuddling up and resting a lot more than is typical,” Cunningham said.

Cunningham knew the flu was going around, but Callan's temperature went down after she gave him a baby Ibuprofen so she took a wait-and-see approach.

By the end of the weekend, she was feeling sick herself. She has auto-immune conditions, so she went to the doctor, where she was diagnosed with flu and pneumonia and put on a course of antibiotics and Tamiflu.

One day later, Callan started coughing. It was time to take him in, too.

“When I took him to the doctor I was pretty exhausted and just trying to focus on keeping him away from other kids so he didn’t get them sick,” Cunningham said.

Callan tested positive for influenza A. He, too, got Tamiflu, which Cunningham said he promptly vomited up.

They spent the next few days being sick together. She tried to feed him honey, tea and other things she thought might soothe his throat and keep him hydrated. He didn't want to swallow anything, even water.

"It’s somewhat alarming when you don’t have control over things as a mom," Cunningham said.

Children die of the flu every year. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported almost 100 pediatric flu deaths this season as of Feb. 17, including two in the four-state region of Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska and Iowa.

Cunningham said she and her husband were keenly aware of the risks. He was reading about what to watch out for online and she had Callan sleep with her so she could keep an eye on his breathing.

"It’s such a small percentage (that die) but when it happens to you, it’s everything, right?” Cunningham said. "“There are obviously kids who don’t recover from the flu, which is scary.”

Fortunately, she and Callan were both feeling better by the end of the week .

Cunningham said Callan and his older sisters have had other vaccines, but she hasn't gotten them flu shots in the past and this experience didn't change her mind about that.

“I just have not been convinced by a doctor yet that the benefits of getting the flu vaccine outweigh any potential side effects of getting it," Cunningham said.

While her family's experience with the flu was unpleasant, Cunningham was able to see a silver lining in it.

"As a working mom, I don’t get to spend as much time with my kids as I used to when I stayed at home," she said. "So it was nice to get to spend some time with him. Hopefully next time it will be on vacation and in well spirits and not sick in bed.”

  • Flu fact: This year's vaccine prevented only about 25 percent of cases caused by the dominant strain, Influenza A H3N2. There's a growing chorus in the medical community for a universal flu shot that performs better, but experts say the risks are minimal with the current shot and some protection is better than none.

Mark Van Baale, 43

Mark Van Baale had gotten the flu shot. He's the social media manager for the city government of Kansas City, and he gets it every year when the vaccine clinic comes to the office.

Still, a couple of weeks ago, his throat started to feel scratchy. The next day his body ached. He was coughing, feverish and didn't want to move.

“I could tell with the body aches it was something different (than a cold) and that’s why I pretty much dragged myself to the doctor," Van Baale said. "Because I sure didn’t feel like going in, but it was important to do that because they were able to tell me for sure it was the flu and here’s what we can do to help you with it.”

Van Baale became one of the many Kansas Citians the flu had temporarily knocked out of the workforce.

It was a Monday and his doctor said the absolute earliest he should go back to work, even if he felt totally fine, was Thursday. Otherwise he risked spreading the disease to his co-workers.

The first few days it was easy to stay away. Van Baale said Tamiflu helped take the edge off, but the body aches were still severe and they were compounded by soreness in his abdomen and head from the constant coughing.

“It’s been awhile since I’ve been sick like this,” Van Baale said.

With rest and plenty of fluids, he recovered enough by the end of the week to start doing some work from home. But he decided to stay out of the office the whole week.

“When I did come back to the office there was a can of Lysol spray there," Van Baale said. "They had sprayed down my office pretty well.”

Van Baale said he's glad he got the shot because his illness might have been worse without it. He also said he's grateful to his co-workers for holding down the fort until he could get back.

“I definitely had a team that helped me out with my work,” Van Baale said.

  • Flu Fact: State laws in Kansas and Missouri prohibit cities and counties from requiring employers to provide paid sick leave. But Tiffany Wilkinson, the manager of the Kansas City Health Department's communicable disease prevention division, said it's in businesses' best interests to have policies that encourage sick workers to stay home. “Obviously having one person out isn’t as bad as having six or eight people out in the same unit," Wilkinson said.

Donna Abrought, 61

Abrought's family started a prayer vigil at Truman shortly after she was diagnosed with the flu.

"We were like, 'She cannot have this,'" her daughter, Alaina Lucas, said. "'We will take it, but she can not have this. She has so much going on already.' Most definitely, we were just devastated and scared.”

Most people can recover from the flu with rest and fluids. But for people like Abrought, it's a serious threat to survival.

Abrought has diabetes, sarcoidosis and congestive heart failure. She also has lymphoma, a cancer of the lymph nodes. She finished her last round of chemotherapy on Feb. 9.

Chemo decimates the immune system for weeks. With the flu raging, Abrought did her best to protect herself.

“I stayed away from children and people with colds," Abrought said. "I kind of was, like, in a bubble. I didn’t go anywhere. I didn’t even go to church.”

But there was one slip-up. Abrought hugged Lucas' daughter on a Monday, two days before she was hospitalized. Both were vaccinated. Neither had any symptoms. They thought they were safe.

“They hugged and probably were around each other for 15, 20 minutes," Lucas said. "She came (to the hospital) Wednesday and on Thursday, my baby had the flu.”

The family's vigilance and knowledge of chemotherapy protocols might have saved Abrought's life. Her doctors had told them that if she spiked a fever in the weeks after chemo they should bring her straight to the emergency room, so they did.

By the time they got there, Abrought was aching to the bone and disoriented. Testing confirmed Influenza B, and Abrought was put on antibiotics and Tamiflu. She spent two days in intensive care.

She said the worst part was "not being able to do for yourself."

“Depending on somebody else: 'Can you help me get out of bed? Can you help me go to the restroom?'" Abrought said. "I was shaking so bad I needed my kids here for every meal. They helped feed me.”

Abrought said her family and the Truman staff members were excellent to her and she's grateful her brush with the flu didn't turn out worse.

Abrought will have to do physical therapy when she leaves the hospital and she will be discharged on oxygen, which she's never had to do before. It's been a tough year. But she's still here.

“I get in my moods where I’m sad," Abrought said. "But other than that, I’m good. I’m going to make it.”

  • Flu Fact: There have been more than 1,000 flu and pneumonia related deaths in both Kansas and Missouri already this season, including at least 17 in Kansas City, Mo.