While the flu is regarded as a health hazard with the potential to infect multiple hosts setting the stage for massive outbreaks, an episode of the disease could prove fatal, especially for patients with cystic fibrosis. This was the case for 33-year-old Melissa Benoit, a mother of one, who was able to survive for almost a week without her lungs. While doctors were searching for a lung donor, the oxygen needed in the woman’s bloodstream was provided by an artificial lung hooked up to a breathing machine.
Cystic fibrosis is characterized by an excessive mucus buildup in the lungs which prevents the patient from breathing normally. The condition worsens when other factors are involved. In this case, the woman was infected with the H1N1 virus which set off a massive infection that soon spread to her entire body.
“Melissa was dying before our eyes”, said one of Toronto General Hospital’s chief surgeon, Dr. Shaf Keshavjee.
Because she was too sick to undergo a double transplant, doctors suggested to completely remove the source of the infection, meaning her lungs, and keep her alive with artificial breathing machines. Melissa and her family accepted the procedure. However, it was not until six days later that a donor was found and the surgery could be performed. Nevertheless, doctors say the woman’s condition drastically improved only minutes after the procedure was completed.
Even so, the woman’s hardship was not over yet. She had to go through months of rehabilitation. Doctors say that because of the two months she spent in the hospital, all of her muscles were atrophied and the only one she could move was her tongue.
Melissa Benoit says she had to learn how to use her hands again, and even how to keep her head in an upright position. The patient also said hospital staff forced her to sit in a chair for at least one hour every day and walk around to speed up her recovery.
Several months after her ordeal, the woman says she never felt better. Melissa Benoit is now able to run and to play with her 2-year-old daughter without wheezing. Up until this point, she said she never knew how it was like to breathe normally.
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