Northwestern Memorial Hospital

A Simple Cough Evolved Into a Life-Threatening Battle With the Flu for Chicago Man

The man was treated for the flu and pneumonia and remains in the ICU

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A Chicago man is lucky to be alive after a simple cough quickly transformed into a life-threatening case of the flu, and his doctors are urging their patients to get vaccinated against a disease that is quickly spreading across the United States.

Octavio Cardenas, 42, was a very healthy father of eight, enjoying hiking and going to Cubs games with his family, so he didn’t think anything of it when he began coughing.

Over the course of the next week, the cough got progressively worse, and by New Year’s Day, he could barely move.

“I couldn’t move,” he said. “You had to put my shoes on.”

Cardenas’ next trip was to the emergency room.

“I had the mask on my face, and they’re telling me to ‘keep breathing, keep breathing,’” he said.

Doctors say that Cardenas had no medical history of illnesses or complications, but despite his good health throughout his life, the flu virus he contracted quickly became a life-threatening condition, as he also contracted pneumonia.

“He had as bad a lung injury as you can get,” Dr. Ankit Bharat said.

In order to save Cardenas’ life, doctors had to turn to a relatively new technology, known as an ECMO device, to help oxygenate his blood. Traditionally, doctors use a ventilator in situations like the one Cardenas faced, but the process can damage diseased lungs as oxygen is forced into the body.

Instead, the ECMO takes blood from the patient’s heart and passes it through an artificial device, which oxygenates the blood.

The device actually allows patients to walk and talk during treatment, and while the remarkable treatment is starting to make its way into hospitals, many patients don’t even know it exists.

 “It’s still a relatively newer technology,” Dr. Bharat said.

Cardenas is expected to be released from the Intensive Care Unit at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in the next 10 days, but for the time being he can’t see his kids as he continues his recovery.

“They’re not allowed in here to see us, so I haven’t seen them in a long time. That hurts,” he said.

Cardenas said that after the experience he’s dealt with, there is one thing he’ll never skip again: getting a flu shot.

“I’ve never been one to get a flu shot, but now I will never miss a flu shot,” he said.

Getting the shot isn’t a guarantee that you won’t get the flu, but doctors say it could prevent the illness from progressing into a severe case like Cardenas’.

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