A Pine City man went from sick to desperately ill within the space of a few days this winter. He then spent three weeks in a coma as doctors fought to save him, as his family wondered if he would ever return home.
And the disease that caused all this?
The flu. Just the flu.
‘A little bit feverish’
Nick Fulweiler commutes from home in Pine City to work as a machinist in Coon Rapids. At the end of January, he started not feeling well.
“He felt like he was getting a cold,” explained his wife, Tori Fulweiler. “A little bit feverish, on and off. Hot, cold. A little bit of a cough.”
Nick did not receive a flu shot this year, Tori said. So when they went to the urgent care they weren’t surprised when he was diagnosed with possible influenza and bronchitis, and sent home with medication.
They both thought: it’s the flu. He’ll be sick for a while, then get better.
But the next day, at home, Nick collapsed. He was passed out with his eyes open and his skin going gray.
“It was like someone was showering him with sweat,” Tori said. “It was pouring out of his entire body.”
Their 14-year-old son called an ambulance, which brought Nick to the Fairview Lakes Medical Center in Wyoming. Nick was already unconscious. The doctors told Tori he had pneumonia.
But Nick continued to decline. On Feb. 2, he was taken to intensive care and put on a respirator because he was drowning from the fluid in his lungs. That evening they transferred Nick to the Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis.
Nick tested positive for Influenza A. Doctors explained to Tori that Nick had developed severe pneumonia as a result of the flu, which then led to severe acute respiratory distress syndrome and sepsis – a condition where the immune system begins to turn against itself.
Nick was put into a medically-induced coma, placed on a respirator and an Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation (ECMO) machine, which pumps a patient’s blood outside the body and gets the oxygen into their blood that their lungs cannot.
“They put two tubes into his neck,” Tori said. “It ran around his head. It took the blood all out of his body, oxygenated the blood and put it back in. And part of that process was so that his lungs didn’t have to do one single thing.”
Tori noted that before he started the ECMO machine, Nick was running fevers up to 104 degrees and had to be icepacked to get the fevers down. After they started the ECMO, doctors were able to control his body temperature.
Nick remained in that medically-induced coma for the next three weeks. Every day, Tori would ask the doctors if Nick was going to survive. And every day, she was told they couldn’t be sure.
“For three weeks we didn’t know,” Tori said. “It was hour to hour if he was going to live, if he was going to die. It was agonizing for my kids, for myself, for our entire family. All because he chose not to take the flu vaccine. These are the complications that can happen. And people don’t see this.”
Flu vaccination best protection
Between Oct. 1, 2018 and March 30, 2019, the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that there were more than 450,000 hospitalizations and 30,000 deaths nationwide due to influenza.
The CDC notes that most people who get the flu will recover in a few days to less than two weeks, but some individuals will develop complications which can be life-threatening, including sinus infections, ear infections and pneumonia. The flu can create inflammation in the heart (myocarditis), in the brain (encephalitis) and muscle tissues. It can also cause major organ failure – including respiratory and kidney failure.
According to the CDC, receiving an annual seasonal flu vaccination is the best way to help protect against flu. Vaccination has been shown to have many benefits including reducing the risk of flu illnesses, hospitalizations and even the risk of flu-related death in children.
Flu vaccines cause antibodies to develop in the body that provide protection against infection with the viruses that are in the vaccine. The annual seasonal flu vaccine is designed to protect against the influenza viruses that research indicates will be most common during the upcoming season.
The CDC acknowledges that – like all other vaccines –the flu vaccine isn’t perfect, but says it cuts the risk of illness between 30 - 60 percent in the general population.
It takes about two weeks for the flu vaccine to work. The CDC recommends that everyone over 6 months of age get vaccinated, preferably in late September, but even into October and later.
‘It still isn’t over’
It was not until Feb. 22 that the family was told that Nick was going to survive. In March, he was finally able to leave the hospital and return home with his family. But besides the aftereffects of his illness, it will take months to recover from spending so much time in a medical coma.
“He had to re-learn how to walk, how to feed himself after just three weeks in a coma,” Tori explained. She said doctors estimate it takes three days to recover for every one day in a coma.
Nick is now doing regular physical and occupational therapy in Pine City, and hoping to go back to work as soon as he can. So is Tori, who was given time off from working as a paraprofessional in the Hinckley Elementary School.
“It has been a struggle, trying to take care of our child, trying to figure what to do with the bills,” she said. “Now that he’s home. I’m his caregiver… until those functions come back. He’s walking with his walker now which is really good. We’re now into hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical bills and it still isn’t over.”
Nick’s family and friends are planning a benefit on June 8 at the Pine County Fairgrounds from 4-9 p.m. and are currently collecting silent auction donations. For more information contact Amanda Wimmer at 612-390-6398. Donations are also being taken for the Fulweiler Benefit Fund at Northwoods Bank and at www.gofundme.com/help-for-my-brother-in-law-and-sister.
For Tori, relief over her husband’s recovery is mixed with a sense of urgency – reminding the community of the importance of flu vaccinations, and bringing awareness to the dangerous complications that could face a family member sick with the flu.
She recently posted her story to Facebook, and said the response was overwhelming.
“People were coming back with, ‘Seriously, the flu did this to him?’ Yes. And people are just not aware of it. There are five-year-old kids who are dying from influenza because they didn’t get vaccinated. I know it’s a touchy situation with some people, but the more that people know the complications of influenza the more they could maybe say, ‘You know what? It’s really not that bad to get the flu shot.’”