It started with a simple sore throat.
Then came some head congestion, fatigue and other seemingly typical cold symptoms — “the usual winter kind of crud,” former Eau Claire resident Allison Miller said last week as she recounted what quickly degenerated into a near-death encounter with the flu in March 2014.
When the sickness progressed, Miller went to the doctor just to be safe. After a checkup, doctors at the University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics in Madison sent her home with instructions to return if symptoms worsened.
When she woke up the next day and felt even worse, Miller, of Madison, went to urgent care, where tests for strep throat came back negative and doctors sent her home with an inhaler and some oral steroids.
Still, her condition continued to deteriorate and by the time she called a friend the next day Miller couldn’t get off the couch. The friend called 911 and Miller was taken by ambulance to the UW Health emergency department, where she answered a few questions during intake.
That’s the last thing she remembers for three weeks.
What eventually was diagnosed as influenza — the disease most people call simply “the flu” — led to such complications as pneumonia, a collapsed lung, a tracheotomy and five days on a heart-lung bypass machine.
Circulation problems while on bypass led to her left leg being amputated above the knee.
“By the time I woke up a lot had happened,” said Miller, who worked as a reporter and anchor for WEAU (Channel 13) in Eau Claire from 2004 to 2007. “It was really touch-and-go there for a while, and I ended up being in the hospital for nearly three months.”
Amazingly, Miller’s nightmare was a chain reaction that started with something as common — and commonly brushed off — as the flu.
It’s that tendency for people to downplay the flu that has inspired Miller to share her story and deliver this simple message: “Get your flu shot. It’s quick and easy, and it could save your life.”
This is where I’m proud to report that my wife and I and our two kids (can I still call them that now that they’re 17 and 21?) get flu shots every year. We started shortly after the children were born.
It wasn’t always easy making our children wait in line to get a shot. Just last year a co-worker laughed at the memory of my young daughter (the one who is now 21 and a regular blood donor) shrieking, crying and generally making quite a scene while waiting for her turn at a workplace flu shot clinic. But we remained firm.
For my kids and most people for that matter, the reality is that the apprehension before the vaccination is much worse than the shot itself.
From my perspective, the dull ache in my upper left arm as I write this — yes, I just got my annual flu shot on Friday — is an almost imperceptible price to pay for protection from a potentially deadly encounter with the flu.
While health officials urge people to get a flu shot every year — and cite U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics showing between 3,000 and 49,000 flu-associated deaths occur in the U.S. annually and that vaccination can reduce flu-related hospitalizations by more than 70 percent — many folks ignore the advice and figure they’ll avoid the needle and take their chances.
Miller, 35, regional associate director of media advocacy for the American Cancer Society Action Network, acknowledged she used to be one of those people, figuring a young, healthy person likely would never experience such complications. She received one flu shot in her early 20s — after a bout with Hodgkins lymphoma — and then never got another before contracting her life-altering case of influenza last year.
Now, however, as she adjusts to life with a prosthetic leg, Miller makes a powerful case for why people should heed the medical experts’ advice.
“If you’ve lived through what I have, you know those are much more than just boring public health facts,” she said. “Getting a flu shot takes two seconds and it’s almost painless. It’s certainly better than not doing anything to prevent what could be a case similar to mine.”
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Upcoming options for Chippewa Valley residents to get a flu shot include:
• The Eau Claire City-County Health Department is offering flu vaccination clinics from 10 to 11:30 a.m. Tuesday at St. Mary's Catholic Church, 1812 Lynn Ave., Altoona, and from 10 to 11:30 a.m. Wednesday and 4 to 6 p.m. Thursday at the Health Department in the Eau Claire County Courthouse. Information: 715-839-2876 or echealthdepartment.org.
• Mayo Clinic Health System is offering the vaccinations by appointment at its clinics throughout northwestern Wisconsin. Call your primary care provider's office or 715-464-7468 for appointments in Eau Claire or 888-662-5666 for appointments in Bloomer, Chippewa Falls and Colfax.
• Marshfield Clinic also is offering flu shots at its regional facilities. An adult flu shot clinic is scheduled from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Oct. 16, and a pediatric and adult flu shot clinic is planned from 4 to 6 p.m. Oct. 27, both at the Eau Claire Center, 2116 Craig Road. Information: 715-858-4500.
Updates appear regularly on the Leader-Telegram’s Wednesday Health pages.