Houston doctors: H1N1 causing serious complications

By Rachel McNeill - Anchor

HOUSTON - The flu is hitting the Houston area with a vengeance.

Across Texas, there have been more than 25 death this season; five of them children.

The reports of hospitalizations due to one particular strain of flu are rising, especially among otherwise healthy young adults.

To Jeffrey McRoberts, of Tomball, his 44-year-old wife, Cynthia, was seemingly healthy until a few weeks ago.

"It just caught us out of nowhere," said McRoberts. "One day we're just talking along and the next day, she developed that cough and the fever kicked in."

After several doctor and emergency room visits, Cynthia was finally diagnosed with H1N1.

"It was a bit of a shock at first, but it was like, finally we have an answer," McRoberts said.

"The most concerning thing about the H1N1 virus is that it can affect young people in the prime of their lives," said Dr. Brian Bruckner, a cardiovascular and transplant surgeon at Houston Methodist. "We're seeing patients in their 30s and 40s that are contracting this illness and actually require admission to the hospital. When you look at our levels of flu admission last year, we've actually seen a doubling of those requiring admission to the hospital."

Along with coughing and difficulty breathing, some young adults, like Cynthia, experience a dangerous increase in oxygen levels, requiring support with a ventilator.

"If their oxygen levels continue to drop despite the assistance of mechanical ventilation, then they may require the ECMO circuit which is a machine that will provide oxygen through the blood," explained Dr. Bruckner, who is also the ECMO Surgical Director at Houston Methodist.

ECMO or Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation is a sort of modified heart-lung bypass procedure, taking over oxygenation of the blood thereby giving the heart and lungs time to rest and recover.

"It's quite dramatic... because the only time you think of these things is like open heart surgery and you think, well she's not in here for surgery," said McRoberts. "So you never think you'd have to be seeing this."

Fortunately, Cynthia's prognosis looks good and she should be moved out of the ICU soon.

This season's flu vaccine does protect against H1N1. Cynthia did not get vaccinated.

"I'm definitely recommending it, even if it doesn't cover everything, it's a little bit closer than nothing," said McRoberts.

Dr. Bruckner said that while the flu vaccine is not a guarantee against contracting the flu, it does offer better protection against upper respiratory infections, pneumonia and other complications which can lead to the need for mechanical ventilation or ECMO support.

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