Walking along the rocky shores at La Jolla Cove, Alicia Contreras takes a deep breath and as she exhales she says with a grin, “This is the most beautiful place in world. The ocean has never been bluer, the sun has never been brighter, and I am happy to be alive.”
The spot holds special significance for Alicia. After being released from the hospital months before, she went to the ocean to take a deep breath and celebrate her survival.
In November 2009, Alicia came into Scripps Mercy Hospital’s emergency department with a 103-degree temperature, a cough and difficulty breathing.
“I knew something wasn’t right," Alicia says. "It felt much worse than anything I had ever experienced.”
Alicia was diagnosed with the H1N1 influenza virus, also known as swine flu. She did not respond to treatment and within days was in the intensive care unit.
According the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, from April 2009 to February 2010, approximately 60 million people in the United States were infected with the H1N1 virus.
It is estimated that of this number, there were 12,000 H1N1-related deaths. The virus spread rapidly and struck younger people, such as 55-year-old Alicia, who were not traditionally considered at high risk for flu complications.
Alicia’s primary care physician John Fox, MD, closely monitored her care.
“Alicia was sedated, intubated and put on a ventilator to breathe,” says Dr. Fox. “An infection had spread through Alicia’s lungs, and we had to be creative with our treatment strategies.”
Scripps Mercy Hospital infectious disease specialist Gonzalo Ballon-Landa, MD, was consulted.
“We were running out of time — and options,” says Dr. Ballon-Landa. “I asked my colleagues at the hospital, and several other infectious disease specialists across the county, if they had ever used Interferon on H1N1 patients. They hadn’t, but supported the use of the drug in Alicia’s case.”
Interferon is commonly used to treat patients with Hepatitis C and West Nile viruses, but Dr. Ballon-Landa believed the drug could also stop the H1N1 virus from replicating. Once the drug was administered on Thanksgiving day, Alicia made a dramatic improvement. She was breathing on her own by the weekend and was out of the intensive care unit on Monday.
After more than a month and a half in the hospital and in rehabilitative care, Alicia was able to go home. Today, she is regaining strength and continuing to make great strides.
“I have a second chance,” says Alicia. “I tell all my family and friends to get their flu vaccine and not to take their health for granted. Every day is better than the day before.”