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by Charlie Hinderliter

I don’t remember ever having a flu shot for most of my adult life. I wasn’t opposed; I just assumed it was meant for the young and the elderly and that flu wasn’t going to be a problem for someone like me. Or at least that’s how I felt until 2018, when I nearly died from this preventable illness. It’s not a headspace I’d like to return to, but if I can be a cautionary tale for others, then it’s worth it.

I honestly don’t know how I got it, which is probably for the best. I just came home one Friday night and really started feeling bad. My wife got sick only a few days later and there was no question we both had influenza. We went to the doctor on Tuesday, and while they were able to give my wife Tamiflu, I didn’t get it.

Things got worse so I returned to the doctor on Thursday. They sent me to the ER, which actually sent me home. But within a day I’d declined further. I was now delirious to the point where I couldn’t even communicate my symptoms. I found some notes I’d written that day where I was trying to tell my doctor what was wrong, because I didn’t trust myself to articulate it. It wouldn’t matter because when my wife brought me back Friday night, it took all of fifteen minutes for them to put me in a medically induced coma

If we had waited just a little longer, I would not be here today.

Charlie hooked up to several machines in the hospital.

Surviving The Complications of Flu

The doctors did not expect me to live. The flu had turned into pneumonia, sepsis, septic shock, and organ failure. My kidneys shut down. My lungs failed. My heart was on the verge of failing, and I was scheduled for life support.

I think it was worse for my family than it was for me. My family was told they needed to fly over in case they needed to say goodbye. My wife was told to start preparing a funeral.

To everyone’s surprise, I did wake up ten days later. My brain was scrambled, but once I had some clarity, it became apparent that this was still very much an active battle. I needed multiple surgeries, my organs were in trouble, and at one point there were three drainage tubes in my chest. I actually had so much fluid in my lungs that they had to stick a big old needle in my back and extract two soda cans worth of fluid. My lung reinflating after that was the most painful thing I’ve ever experienced.

And it was exhausting. I lost forty pounds while I was in the hospital, most of which was muscle. My resting heart rate was about 120 beats per minute. I couldn’t focus on anything, even TV or an audio book. I was too weak to even stand. My family was there to keep me occupied, but I couldn’t really speak either. Once I was more with it, I was super bored.

From Young and Healthy to Assisted Living

After fifty-eight days of this, I was discharged to a nursing home. It was the same one where my grandma was staying (which was weird). I still couldn’t walk without a walker or eat without a feeding tube, so my task was to regain some really basic functioning and hopefully go home. The day I was able to finish a bowl of broccoli cheddar soup was a big moment for me because it was the first real meal I’d been able to finish in months.

I honestly wasn’t sure if I’d recover fully. I was terrified for months by my cognitive issues, which for some people are permanent. While those subsided, I do have lingering effects years later. I still struggle in the morning, sometimes choking on phlegm. I don’t have the strength or stamina I did beforehand. My lungs are scarred, and I have reduced hearing in one ear. And you know emotionally, there’s trauma.

Charlie sound asleep in the hospital.

I wouldn’t wish any of this experience on anyone. If you can prevent it with a fifteen minute wait and minor pain in your arm for a day, that is absolutely worth the trade-off. Almost dying because I didn’t just feels dumb sometimes.

Get Your Flu Shot This Season.

When I tell people this story, the big question is always “why did this happen to you?” Like there has to be some sort of clear-cut cause. And I don’t have an answer for them. A lot of people get the flu and it’s a harsh illness, but they get over it in a few days and go about their life. What they don’t realize is that’s not always going to be the case.

You don’t need to have a pre-existing risk factor (I didn’t). There are just going to be times when it really grabs a hold of you, and no matter how healthy you were to begin with, that can change fast. For me it was a matter of hours. I was sent home from the ER one night and in a coma the next. 

I wish I’d gotten that vaccine. It’s not perfect, but even if you get the flu you’re going to have reduced symptoms. I could really have used reduced symptoms.

Get vaccinated so your family doesn’t go through what mine did.

There’s also the chance to protect your loved ones from this disease. My wife was so sick she almost wound up in the same hospital. If you’re around someone who’s immunocompromised you don’t want to give them something like that. And it’s also important to protect our health care workers who have not had a good couple of years. Give them a break.

Charlie out with some friends getting their flu vaccines.

Nowadays, it’s pretty regular for people who saw my story to tell me they got their flu shot. There was a day last month where I literally had four different people let me know. And that’s kind of cool. It means that I’ve been able to turn what was a horrible experience for me into something that can hopefully protect other folks.

If I can be a voice for prevention, I want to do that. I want to protect you and your loved ones from going through what I did. And the best way to do that is to get vaccinated.

Charlie Hinderliter is a political scientist and policy expert from Saint Louis, Missouri. His story, like all others on this blog, was a voluntary submission. If you want to help make a difference, submit your own post by emailing Noah at [email protected] We depend on real people like you sharing experience to protect others from misinformation.

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