Op-Ed: Wake Up, America: I Was Young and Healthy. I Still Ended Up on a Ventilator.



By Allison Miller

November 12, 2020

And get your flu shot. Influenza cost me a leg and more.

While the 2020 election is blessedly over, the pandemic sadly is not. Cases are spiking at alarming levels all over the country—increasingly from small family gatherings which will happen more frequently in the coming weeks. 

I get it, we’re all tired of the pandemic. The endless months of restricted living. The masks, the worry, the terribly inadequate federal response that’s forced each of us to become amateur epidemiologists and virologists in order to calculate the risk of everything from a walk with a friend to the prospect of a flight across the country. 

It is bone-deep exhausting. And, just when you feel like you can’t take any more, here come the grueling winter months. And the holidays. 

But here’s the thing: You have to keep doing the right things. You cannot risk ending up in an ICU at peak capacity. You cannot risk a lifetime of permanent health conditions. You cannot risk knowing your actions left someone you love with a lifetime of health problems or worse, ended their life.

Being on a ventilator in an intensive care unit even in non-crisis conditions is a terror you shouldn’t wish on anybody. I know. 

In early 2014, I was young, relatively healthy, and I caught influenza. The flu led to pneumonia, hospitalization, and secondary complications that put me close to death and cost me most of my left leg.

I wish I could make people understand the visceral terror of being on a ventilator, of drowning in your own lungs, gasping for your next breath—of the full-body gag of having fluids suctioned out of your chest and the inability to say, do or communicate anything while this happens. 

I wish people understood the importance of having family in the room at those moments, of having someone you know and love—through the haze of heavy drugs—to hold your hand, pat your head, and just be a presence amidst the surreal nightmare that is you desperately clinging to life.

I also wish I could make people understand the importance of having highly-trained, attentive, caring, and well-rested medical staff with you in those intensely tenuous moments—the deep, spiritual relief of knowing the doctors and nurses know you, care about you, are doing everything they can to make you even a tiny bit more comfortable, stable, and able to find the strength to just keep breathing.

But as cases climb and hospitals get inundated with COVID patients, that kind of care becomes impossible to deliver. At some point, there simply isn’t enough medical staff to give the intensive care needed to live through and survive the intensive care unit. 

If you contract coronavirus now, your ICU nurse might really be a labor-and-delivery nurse who’s been reassigned out of desperation and has all of the compassion and dedication in the world, but not the exact training for this moment where you teeter between life and death. The same goes for the doctor or the overworked respiratory staff. 

This is why “flattening the curve” was so important in the pandemic’s early days and is even more urgent right now. The reason death rates had declined is because time allowed science and doctors to determine better ways of treating the worst cases, and the patients with the worst cases had the benefit of the right doctors with the time to treat them. 

In no way has this virus lightened up, gone away or otherwise lessened. This virus is as relentless as a midwestern winter. And you still have a target on your back whether you believe all of this or not.

People have become numb to the statistics. You see there have been 237,000 victims and it maybe feels no differently than when there were 236,000 victims, or 6,000. But those are people, not statistics. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates there were 38,000 influenza-associated deaths in the US. If I had become 38,001, you wouldn’t be reading this. 

But you are, and so hear me out.

I very narrowly avoided being just another statistic because I could get the care I needed without the all-encompassing swarm of a pandemic. Loved ones could be with me. Staff was rested, attentive, and able to help me survive in those crucial moments where I almost didn’t.

Seem scary? It is.

I know you’re tired of this. By now, what you haven’t watched yet on Netflix is a wasteland. Cooking went from novelty to torture. All you want is a night of fun, some hugs, and maybe a good cry on the shoulder of someone who’s not in your “bubble.” I want those things too. I’m not going home for the holidays. I haven’t seen most of my family for nearly a year. I want this to end more than anything but I also want it to end with those I know and love being able to celebrate with me again.

So please, please, take this seriously. Believe science, and keep socially distanced. Nothing is worth the risk of dying alone gasping for breath and wishing you could hold someone’s hand one more time. 





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