When swine flu arrived in Georgia

Two hospitals. 41 days. 36 physicians, nurses, respiratory therapists, and physical therapy experts. One pandemic. One patient's life saved.

In April, as a new form of flu was emerging, Emory researchers were already at the forefront of studying the virus H1N1—tracking its spread across the globe, planning for its impact in the United States, and working to identify a vaccine.

But while Emory hospitals were prepared to treat patients impacted by the H1N1 virus, no one was expecting how sick the patient would be who arrived by helicopter in May. The 31-year-old mother of two young children was the first confirmed case of the H1N1 virus in Georgia. A resident of Kentucky, she already had spent more than 10 days in a hospital in Middle Georgia. She was suffering from respiratory failure with a dangerous blood clot in her lungs. Unable to breathe on her own, she needed the advanced care available only at a tertiary care center like Emory.

Atypical of other flu viruses, the one contracted by this woman was still present. "As a result, her lungs were stiffening – unable to expand and contract," says her Emory doctor, David Schulman.

Isolated in a special ICU room that is sealed from the rest of the hospital with a reverse filtered air flow, she was placed on a breathing machine called an oscillator. It takes literally hundreds of tiny breaths per minute into the stiffening lungs to deliver more oxygen into the patient's bloodstream.

"She was certainly one of the sickest early patients across the country," says Emory infectious disease specialist Bruce Ribner, who collaborated with several health agencies in studying the patient's case and outcome.

After two weeks, the patient improved enough to be taken off the ventilator and to transfer to Wesley Woods Hospital, an Emory facility noted for its expertise in the care of geriatric and chronic care patients. There, she relearned how to perform simple tasks (using a fork and spoon, typing on a laptop keyboard) that she had lost during a month in a coma.

Today, the patient is back home with her husband and children, and she still keeps in regular contact with many of her Emory nurses and doctors. —Lance Skelly

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