Aubrey Opdyke was 25 weeks pregnant in 2009 when a brush with the novel H1N1 flu made the West Palm Beach mom so ill that she was rushed to the hospital and put on a ventilator, plunged into a medically induced coma in the hopes of saving her baby.
When she awakened weeks later, she learned baby Parker Christine had not survived. Meanwhile, her terrifying brush with the pandemic flu strain had become a national news story as her family shared the ordeal to warn others.
Opdyke was hospitalized for three months, and was unconscious for much of it while her husband and other family members kept vigil.
Today, Opdyke is happily pregnant again and doing well despite lingering lung damage. She's immunized against flu this year, and has been every year since her illness. And she's taking solace in word from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that more than 43 percent of pregnant women had been vaccinated against influenza as of late November, on pace to break last year's rate of nearly 50 percent.
It was a marked increase from 2009, when barely 15 percent of pregnant women were vaccinated.
"Everyone is so scared of the side effects, but getting sick with flu is the worst side effect," Opdyke said. "I'm glad they told my story if it helped people."
Most years, researchers estimate, between 5 percent and 20 percent of the U.S. population becomes infected with influenza. Most recover easily, without incident. But about 200,000 become so ill they're hospitalized, said Dr. Howard Koh, assistant secretary for health in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
"It is particularly important for certain high-risk individuals such as young children, pregnant women and seniors to be vaccinated," Koh said. "They can experience serious complications from the flu, ranging from dehydration to pneumonia or even death."
People with such chronic conditions as asthma, diabetes, and heart or lung disease also should be vaccinated because of the potential for complications, he said.
Opdyke experienced the worst of those complications.
She was pregnant and waiting tables in 2009 when the CDC announced in late April that a novel and highly contagious flu strain had infected children in California.
By late June, long before a vaccine was ready, labs were identifying the novel flu all over the country, and Opdyke was nursing a sore throat. A cough was next, and a fever. Her doctor prescribed Tylenol and later an antibiotic. But within five days, her lungs were failing, and her husband, Bryan, was in a panic, rushing her to Wellington Regional Medical Center as she drifted in and out of consciousness.
Opdyke had developed a rare and dangerous flu complication called acute respiratory distress syndrome. The lungs essentially fail. They become so infected and inflamed that blood oxygen levels plummet, a condition that can lead to organ failure and death.
She was put on a ventilator and struggled to survive. After two weeks, on July 18, doctors decided they had to deliver Opdyke's baby to save the mother's life. It would be five weeks before Opdyke would learn of her daughter's fate. She still grieves that she never was able to hold Parker or see anything more than a photograph that was taken soon after the baby's delivery.
"She was gone. She was cremated. There was no remnants of her for me to have even met her. It was surreal, like I wasn't even pregnant," she said. "Thank God I have those pictures because that's all I have of her."
Opdyke's 7-year-old daughter, Hope, still refers to Parker as her little sister, Opdyke said. Hope is going to have a brother soon, too. Opdyke plans to name him Brayden Robert. He's due Jan. 4.
"I have peace of mind that I should be OK and he should be OK," she said.
Researchers believe that pregnant women are somewhat immune-compromised - the body's way of making sure the fetus isn't rejected. As a result, they're more susceptible to severe complications from flu.
Epidemiologists believe 56 pregnant women died from the pandemic flu in 2009, out of 953 known ill. That's a far higher fatality rate than for the general population. The flu put 280 of those pregnant women into hospital intensive care units, according to the 2010 report in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The pandemic flu also took the lives of about 1,000 children in 2009.
"I think the 2009 pandemic really shined a light on how bad influenza can be when you are pregnant and really tipped the scales for health care providers on whether to vaccinate pregnant women," said Dr. Anne Schuchat, director of the CDC's National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases.
West Palm Beach obstetrician Dr. John Burigo agreed.
"Patients are now hearing their doctors when they recommend vaccination, whereas before many patients ignored the advice or simply forgot," Burigo said.
The message isn't reaching everyone. Although
Flu season in Florida typically peaks in January and February, and although right now flu is only sporadic, it's picking up. That makes now the perfect time to get vaccinated, Schuchat said, because it takes about two weeks after vaccination for a person to develop immunity.
"Vaccination used to come to a complete stop after Thanksgiving, but the season doesn't get started really until January," Schuchat said. "It's not too late to vaccinate."