Two Hearts

I have one simple request, if you haven’t had a flu vaccination this year, please get one now.

In this year of a serious flu outbreak, it amazes me when I hear people say they haven’t gotten a vaccination, and don’t think they will.

Maybe this bothers me more than those who haven’t personally witnessed a flu-related death. Before I had, I used to think the flu was just a really bad cold, and healthy people had nothing to fear other than headaches, body aches, runny  noses and chills if they caught the flu.

In 2010, the year of the swine flu season, I painfully learned that isn’t always the case. You see, my older brother, Rollie, came down with the swine flu that year, just about a week before his Feb. 14 birthday. Rollie was a big man with a big heart, a loving father, a beloved brother and son. He was a healthy, strong man. And then he got sick.

I received the call on that Monday from my sister that Rollie was in the hospital, and it was serious. His wife had been trying to get him to go to the doctor, and finally took him to the ER on Sunday. They admitted him, and the next day he was unable to breath, so he was put in ICU on a ventilator. They had to put him in a medically induced coma because, even in his weakened state, he fought the intubation. I drove the next day to Athens, with a suitcase to stay overnight.

Only family members who had the flu vaccination were allowed to go see my brother. That narrowed it down to his ex-wife, whom he still had a good relationship with (considering they had 5 kids — three by birth, two by adoption — it was a blessing), my sister, myself and his daughter (my 18 year-old niece), so we were alternating sitting with him during the one time each hour they would let us go in.

I’ll never forget sitting with him those two days. That big, strong, teddy bear of a man laid out on the bed, a breathing tube in his throat with the pshhhh-pshhhh hissing of the ventilator every few seconds, a feeding tube of some vile grey matter leading to his stomach, and IV’s and monitors everywhere. We had to don masks, gowns, gloves and foot covers every time we went in, using antibacterial lotion on our hands before and after each visit.

There wasn’t much to do while we sat with him, so we watched his monitors closely, and learned what each line meant. We rubbed his bare arms, stroked his forehead, let him know we were there. We talked to him. I don’t know what the others said, but I remember telling him to please not become another statistic, please come back. I told him how precious he was to me and to his family, and how he was always my favorite Valentine’s Day gift, and my hero for the many good things he did.

Then we’d go back to the little ICU waiting room, and update the other family members with whatever we had learned. We also met other families who were there for their loved ones in the ICU. We learned from them that the longer a patient is on a ventilator, the greater the risk of them not surviving. We prayed he would be off the ventilator soon.

From the doctors, we learned the reason why this flu hit healthy people so hard — it triggered an overreaction by the flu victim’s immune system. The immune system would create a large amount of mucus trying to flush the virus out, but that filled the lungs instead. The stronger the immune system, the bigger the reaction. We looked for signs of improvement, we saw none.

I went home after two days, with no good news to tell my kids and husband. I planned on going back over the weekend, but instead got a call from my sister the next day telling me that Rollie had died during the night. His 18 year-old daughter had been sitting with him when things when downhill, and my sister said my niece saw very disturbing things and had a difficult night. I was heartbroken for my niece for witnessing that, heartbroken for his kids that would grow to adulthood without this fine man, and heartbroken that I’d never hear his voice, his laugh again.

My brother’s remains were cremated. His kids, just on a fluke, had asked him a few weeks before what he would want done with his ashes. With his usual dry humor and sideways grin, he said, “Surprise me.”

The day of his memorial service was the day before his birthday, Valentine’s Day. Before we went to the church, we were at his kitchen table dividing up his ashes. Some I took with me, a portion of which I buried with my father when he passed. The rest I plan to take to some crazy place when I travel when I retire. But the bulk of the ashes his kids decided to spread themselves on the farmland where they lived. So we all went outside on that cold blustery day and stood in a circle of friends and family, each speaking our thoughts about Rollie.

Then his kids took the ashes and tossed them into the air, and an amazing thing happened. The wind caught them up in a whirl, and turned them into a tall, frothy column. It hung in the air for several wonderful seconds. And we laughed — because we knew that was Rollie playing with us.

I appreciate your letting me share this with you, but I do have an ulterior motive. I truly want people to know that a momentary pinch on the shoulder is nothing like the pain of losing someone you love. I want to convince people that it is worth their time to go get a flu vaccination today — because the flu season still has several more weeks to go, some doctors say it may go well into March, and it’s such a horrible strain of flu, very similar to the strain that took my brother.

If I do get across to some people with my brother’s story, and they go get the vaccination and avoid becoming ill, or worse, then Rollie won’t be just a statistic anymore.

And you can have a Happy Valentine’s Day.

Amy Knowles is the night editor and editorial page content manager for Rome News-Tribune.