Edmonton woman advocates for influenza immunization after almost dying
Story by Kirsten Goruk; Photo by Shelly Willsey
Jill McPhee-Burton celebrated her 39th birthday in the intensive care unit (ICU) of Grey Nuns Community Hospital.
“The nurses and doctors decorated my door and gave me a card. My family came and the day before I had been given the okay to start clear fluids, so we had a Jell-O birthday party in my room,” McPhee-Burton recalls.
The birthday was more than a celebration of her 39th. It was a celebrating of making it to 39 at all.
An Edmonton-area teacher, Mc-Phee Burton has spent almost a year recovering from influenza, months of it spent the ICU, recovering from surgeries and learning how to walk, talk and move again.
“I wasn’t feeling well the week before I ended up in the hospital. I figured it was just a bad cold. I went to see my family doctor and he said I had the flu and needed to rest,” says McPhee-Burton.
“I just kept feeling worse and worse and I was really confused by that because usually after a few days I get better.”
Like so many Albertans, she didn’t think she was at risk of becoming deathly ill. With no pre-existing conditions, McPhee-Burton also didn’t think she needed to get immunized last season.
“I found out the hard way I was wrong,” she says.
On January 30, 2016, Jill was admitted to the emergency room, then to hospital, and finally, to the ICU. With the added (and very common) complication of pneumonia, her symptoms were so severe that doctors decided to intubate and put her into a medically induced coma.
“When I woke up, I could only move my eyes. I couldn’t do anything else. I couldn’t speak or breathe on my own. It’s the most terrifying thing, to be stuck in your own body, unable to communicate,” she says.
Unfortunately, McPhee-Burton isn’t the only person who’s experienced severe illness and complications due to influenza.
“Last year influenza caused the hospitalization of 1,600 Albertans in six months, and 62 Albertans died with influenza” says Dr. Chris Sikora, Medical Officer of Health for Alberta Health Services’ Edmonton Zone. “This is largely preventable with the simple act of getting immunized”.
Alberta’s influenza immunization program began on October 24th, and is offering influenza vaccine, free of charge, to all Albertans six months of age and older. Influenza immunization is safe, and effective. Last season, immunization cut Albertans’ risk for influenza in half.
“Albertans are encouraged to take advantage of our universal program, and get immunized as early in the season as possible,” says Sikora. “By getting immunized early, your body will have the opportunity to respond to immunization, and produce antibodies that will arm you against the influenza viruses you’ll be exposed to again throughout the season.”
McPhee-Burton has thankfully realized big milestones to recovery, including regaining the ability to walk on her own, feed herself and return to work, albeit only part-time for now, as a Grade 5 teacher at Richard Secord School.
McPhee-Burton’s rehab work continues, with simple goals such as building up more strength through exercises that include lunges and squats.
“My family and I will never forget what we’ve gone through”, she says. “I’ll be getting my flu shot this year. This put a new perspective on things for my family, my friends and my colleagues. If I can change one person’s mind and save them from going through what I went through, then I’ll be happy.”
For more information about influenza immunization, including clinic schedules please visit www.ahs.ca/influenza.