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Swine Flu in North Idaho-No More Pokes

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Swine Flu in North Idaho-No More Pokes

Three people, three stories. In the first, No More Pokes, he's one of the statistics, but the news is good

Brock Lesner is a bad mutha.

The heavyweight Ultimate Fighting Champion is so tough that he eats raw iron and makes, well, steel chain. Or, so it would seem.

Last month, though, a small bundle of protein that’s not even visible under a light microscope did to Mr. Lesner, a 6’3”, 265-pound former NCAA wrestling champion, what many UFC bad boys couldn’t.

The virus, known as H1N1 or swine flu, knocked Lesner off his game, and then it put him on his butt.

After battling swine flu for three weeks the behemoth man from Minneapolis opted out of a championship fight this month.

The fight’s cancelation might be a tragedy to hard core UFC fans but it doesn’t blip the radar screen of the millions who, like Lesner, contracted the swine flu virus, resulting, in some cases, in real life-altering, or life-ending tragedies.

In a way, it shows that no one is immune to the disease, not even the ultimately fit.

My 4-year-old son and I watched Lesner defeat UFC legend Randy Couture in an early October rerun. My little boy hooked his legs under the covers on the couch, eyes glued to the television, his little boy hands pulling the blankets up to his chin as he wheezed quietly and coughed on occasion, complaining of chest pains. But this was just a cold, a bacterial infection and if it didn’t get better, he would see the doctor again in a couple of days.

According to reports more than 1,000 deaths in the U.S. were attributed to H1N1 by fall. The virus struck nationwide and residents of North Idaho and eastern Washington, part of the Center For Disease Control and Prevention’s Region 10, weren’t spared, and it is not over.

Washington and Idaho were named among 48 states with wide-spread cases and so far, the toll has been great.

Four deaths in the Spokane area were confirmed swine flu cases, and across the state line in Post Falls, a 50-year-old man is confirmed to have died from it. H1N1 was suspected in the death of an otherwise healthy 39-year-old football coach, but tests have come back negative. Bonner County has also seen its first death in a young adult who was suffering from swine flu. (See “Loss of a Local”)

When Lesner trounced into the ring he impressed the cameras with his size. They had to pull away to get full frame. Randy Couture, ever the glutton, with the calm of an old man much smaller than Lesner, didn’t pull away. He was dropped in the second round after methodically socking it to the big man and my little boy coughed and said his throat hurt. He had been throwing up too, and lay under the covers with the shivers.

Physicians had prescribed antibiotics because he definitely had a bacterial infection, they said.

As hospitalizations jumped last month, in some cases swamping emergency rooms and filling hospital beds with sick children and adults, vaccinations could not keep up with the demand, in part because of a shortfall in the supply.

The 120 million doses of the vaccine that were supposed to be distributed by mid-October, according to the federal government, didn’t arrive. Instead, about 13 million doses were shipped by the deadline according to the Centers for Disease Control, and manufacturers ramped up production.

The available vaccines were free and set aside to inoculate thousands in the area, including 3,600 in North Idaho, where schools, medical personnel and Panhandle Health District clinics were put on the short list.

My boy was out of preschool for a week, and then, just as it seemed he was healing up, as if he had done to this nasty old cough what Lesner had done to Couture—choked it out of his system—he was back in bed whimpering about his throat and his fever spiked. The cough came back and the color faded from a sorrowful face that was usually wrapped in a grin lifting his ears and raising the cowboy haircut of his forehead. His asthma aggravated his cold, or vice-versa the doctors said.

When the swine flu struck the region, the medical community made a roster of people who were likely more susceptible, or at a higher risk of contracting H1N1. Pregnant women were included; so were people who live with or care for small children, school-age kids, people with chronic health problems and health care workers. Children with asthma were listed too.

In most cases, the flu can be handled by staying at home, but people were told the signs of heightened infection included difficulty breathing sometimes accompanied by pain or pressure in the chest or abdomen, dizziness, persistent vomiting and then an easing of flu symptoms followed by the return with vengeance of a fever and a cough.

Emergency warning signs for children included rapid breathing and skin discolored to a bluish or gray hue.

I got a text message that they were going to keep him at the hospital. Then another that said they were awaiting test results. The last one said that my 4-year-old was alone on a medical helicopter wheeling through the early fall dark and rain to Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center. Can you meet him there? I got in the car and buzzed down Highway 41 through rain splatter, pressing the red tail lights in front of me.

So many children were absent from schools in North Idaho this fall because of flu-related illness that it skewed school enrollment figures. School districts use the fall enrollment numbers as a base to acquire school funding from the state. But, because absenteeism in many schools nudged towards 30 percent, some districts asked the state education department for waivers, or otherwise to consider the affects of swine flu on their attendance rates when the state writes out its checks. The Idaho Department of Education braced itself for a pile of swine flu-related waivers, said spokesperson Melissa McGrath.

“We understand that this is a strange year and H1N1 has hit. We’ve encouraged students to go home and staff to go home if they’re feeling ill. So we’re doing all that we can at the state level to ensure they still get their funding,” McGrath said.

The health district last month also suggested schools consider shutting down for a week if they experience “sustained absenteeism greater than 25 percent for three days.”

The nurse said, put this on. And this. Rubber gloves, smock and mask. Don’t forget to disinfect.

What followed were nights of sleeping on hard chairs or slumped on the floor in the darkened room where IVs buzzed and other aliens too, dressed in the same attire, stopped in at all hours for x-rays as my son winced in his sleep. They suited up to check the oxygen level, listen to his wheezing chest, monitor the red and green lights, the blips and beeps or just to say hello.

They opened and closed the door, shuffled about. He cried.

When they were through they tossed the smocks, face masks and gloves into a bin and said we’ll be back in a few.

“If you need anything… anything at all…”

Just sleep, thanks.

He was all giggles, before, and grins. Sing me a song, he said. He was all about the bus ride from preschool where he attends with his pals, the blushes when asked about little girls in dresses and the principal who he tries not to call by her first name. He was 4-wheelers and apple trees and naming the different kinds of deer.

An elk’s a deer, he said, and a moose too!

He is one of those statistics on the news.

The local health district called asking questions about the little guy’s bout with the flu.

H1N1 they said.

In the big hospital bed it was mostly “no more pokes!” Exhaustion, and a few shed tears. When they finally let him out he chirped. The light jumped back into his dark eyes and his mouth turned up.

He’s better now. But the bout drew him scrawny, with eyes looking out from shadowed orbits and there’s room between his belly and his belt.

The grin is back. The grin and the glint. He made it through and knows it.

Lookit my card, he says. A handcrafted get-well-soon from the preschool class.

I’m not tough, he said. When will it snow?

He doesn’t like the cold.

He doesn’t like to shiver and shake and sweat and have his skin crawling. He didn’t like the stomachaches and the cough that razored his throat, so every bout had it raw and hurting.

I’m not tough, he said. No. Not like Lesner.

He’s one of the statistics, but the news is good. He made it through.

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Ralph Bartholdt Ralph Bartholdt is a freelance writer and editor

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