As I got up from dinner to use the bathroom, the room began to spin. Thinking I was just a bit dizzy, I continued on my way to the bathroom. I didn’t know it then, but the next five months of my life would be like a carousel as I stumbled my way through labyrinthitis — an inner ear infection — and a symptom that can occur along with the influenza virus.
This happened nearly two years ago, but the images are still vivid in my mind. I had been dizzy for over 72 hours when I decided to go to the hospital. It was December, and the streets were festooned with Christmas lights. Feeling very unwell, I took the bus, drawing concern from strangers: “Ma’am, are you OK? Did you have a little too much to drink?” I wished my problem was that simple.
I didn’t know what was wrong with me and I was anxious about what my symptoms could indicate. “Do I have MS?” I wondered. The attending doctor ruled out a number of diagnoses but decided to keep me under observation for 48 hours. Then, as two nurses were easing me onto a commode, the sounds of the hospital machines began pulsating in my ears. Everything went blank.
I woke up several hours later. A teary-eyed nurse told me she had called the code when I’d crashed. I’d had a 103.5-degree fever, a blood pressure reading of 50/30 mmHg, and a heart rate of 155.
A swab of my nose came back positive for the influenza A virus. Thoughts swirled around in my head. “Wait, what?” I asked the doctor in disbelief. “I nearly died from the flu?” I didn’t know whether to be happy it wasn’t another chronic illness or sad that I had succumbed so easily to the flu. The doctor told me that if the nurses hadn’t reacted so quickly I could have died.
Those words hit me like a ton of bricks. Until then, I had thought only Crohn’s could kill me. And there I was succumbing to an opportunistic infection that had infiltrated my entire body, from my brain with labyrinthitis to my GI tract with gastroenteritis, in addition to fever, chills, and muscle aches.
I figured out that I must have caught the virus on a flight back from San Diego a few days earlier. I scolded myself for not wearing a mask on that flight — and I cursed myself for not getting a flu shot.
My body recovered from the flu within a week, but the virus remained in my brain for another five months. I spent those months in vestibular rehabilitation therapy, relearning things I had taken for granted, such as balance and walking without a cane or walker. My life had been turned upside down because of the flu.
Since then, I’ve made sure to get the flu shot each fall. It may not prevent me from getting the flu. I am immunocompromised from Crohn’s disease and the biological medications I take to treat it. But getting the shot can prevent such an intense reoccurrence of the virus and can reduce mortality risk.
Last June, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 172 children died during that particular flu season. Of those, 80 percent had not received vaccinations. While flu vaccines don’t cover every strain, the shot can prevent death and major complications like those I faced two winters ago.
For those of you thinking of forgoing the flu shot this year, I urge you to reconsider, especially if you’re immunocompromised, have a young child, or are elderly. It’s not worth taking the risk when preventive measures are available.
So, own your Crohn’s, own your chronic illness. Take it from my flu story — there is no reason to suffer when you can get a shot.
*Originally published in IBD News Today on 10/18/2018: http://ibdnewstoday.com/2018/10/18/ibd-labyrinthitis-immunocompromised-flu-shot-vaccination/
**For those of you with allergies to egg and animal products, there is a flu vaccine called Flublok Quadrivalent. Ask your doctor or pharmacy where to get it 🙂
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