Flu can be a deadly disease
Prairie Park School counselor Ed Barnhart survived a long fight earlier this year against influenza A. He's now a strong advocate for people getting the flu vaccine. And for good reason. Last flu season was particularly deadly for Kansans.
According to the Kansas Department of Health and Environment:
¢ In the 2007-2008 flu season: 51 deaths in Kansas were linked directly to flu. Another 667 people died from pneumonia, while in the deaths of another 1,297 people, flu or pneumonia were contributing factors.
¢ In the 2006-2007 flu season: Four deaths in the state were linked directly to flu. Another 572 people died from pneumonia, and in the deaths of another 1,138 people, flu or pneumonia were contributing factors.
¢ In the 2005-2006 flu season: 21 Kansans' deaths were linked directly to flu. Another 543 people died from pneumonia, and in the deaths of another 1,266 people, flu or pneumonia were contributing factors.
When doctors at St. Francis Hospital in Topeka gave Ed Barnhart less than a 10 percent chance to live, pus had wrapped around his lungs and leached the air out of them, suffocating him from within. His temperature hit 106; his heart was beating dangerously fast. He'd contracted staph, strep throat and pneumonia.
Barnhart, 57, was battling for his life against influenza A.
He somehow pulled through, and recently he returned to work as a counselor at Prairie Park School.
Barnhart's wife, Jennifer, says God performed a miracle in keeping him alive. His doctor, Stephanie Blanken, a cardio-tracheologist at St. Francis, says it's nothing short of a medical miracle.
"Was it a miracle? Yeah," Blanken said. She said Barnhart's condition was one of the worst she has ever seen. According to the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, 51 deaths in the state were linked directly to influenza A and B last flu season.
The longest Lent
It started last Feb. 10, Ash Wednesday, as Barnhart sat in church.
"I feel awful," he told his wife.
Barnhart, a long-distance runner, went for a jog after the service. That night, his temperature skyrocketed to 103 degrees.
His wife drove him from their home in Osage City to St. Francis, and after an evaluation, they were told Barnhart simply had the flu. Twelve hours later, he was all but comatose.
The Barnharts returned to St. Francis, and a team of physicians diagnosed him with Influenza A. He would spend the next five and a half weeks drifting in and out of consciousness, fighting for his life.
"The only things they fear are Influenza A and bird flu, because either one of them could kill thousands," Barnhart said. Doctors told him that his symptoms mirrored those of the Spanish flu outbreak of 1918. That pandemic also involved a strain of Influenza A.
Barnhart says he's been told that a priest joined his family in his hospital room during the first days. They recited the Lord's Prayer. He doesn't remember that.
Just how Barnhart contracted Influenza A provides a warning to people who do not seek out flu vaccinations. Doctors suspect he breathed in the virus, or touched a surface previously touched by someone who carried the virus.
"They were Typhoid Mary, basically," said Barnhart, who didn't get a flu shot last year.
He developed pneumonia, which caused pus to fill and envelop his lungs. That, in turn, caused sepsis, an infection of the blood.
The pus that gripped his lungs could have been deadly. Jennifer Barnhart corresponded by e-mail with a friend, who chronicled Barnhart's fight. In a Feb. 15 e-mail, she wrote that Barnhart's lung "looked like melted cheese in pizza sauce."
His kidneys were failing, and Blanken says he was on the verge of needing a heart transplant.
He was on so many blood thinners that doctors installed a tracheostomy tube to help him breathe. One day, the tube blew out of his throat, spewing three pints of blood.
"I thought I was dying," Barnhart said. "I could see the blood splatters on the wall as it was coming out of my mouth, and I thought I was dead. I figured this was it, and I was beginning to suffocate."
He was rushed to intensive care and doctors stopped the bleeding. Within days, Barnhart was on his feet, even walking up and down stairs.
His recovery was moving fast, and he was released from St. Francis on Good Friday.
He and his wife can joke about it a little bit: "We think we'll do Lent differently than we did this year," he said.
Home, at last
After being released from St. Francis, Barnhart returned home to Osage City. He was supposed to spend six months at a rehabilitation facility, but doctors were so impressed by his recovery, they allowed him to go home.
"It has been nothing short of miraculous," Jennifer Barnhart said. "The fact that he was able to walk out of the hospital and begin the process of recovery is nothing short of a miracle."
But there were challenges ahead.
Barnhart couldn't speak until July, lingering effects of the tracheostomy tube that pressed against his vocal cords. He was weak. His weight dropped from 210 pounds to 179. His vision was blurred, and his balance unsteady.
Barnhart credits his wife and two children, William, 25, and Julia, 18, with his recovery.
"It's changed my whole family. We are the Waltons. We come together often and share often, but it's helped us come closer together," he said.
Jennifer Barnhart said she left her husband's bedside only twice: Once to help Julia pre-enroll at Kansas State University, and the other time to help Julia pick a prom dress.
"My wife and I have been married for 34 years (in December)," he said. "I loved her before. If you told me you could love your wife more, I'd say that's not possible."
Healing with prayer
Jennifer Barnhart said faith got them through the ordeal.
"Faith in God, and tons of love and support from family and friends and colleagues," she said.
Barnhart says he finds it easier to pray now, especially during the hourlong commute from Osage City.
"Prayer is a real comfortable feeling," he said. "I find myself collected in a prayer that some mornings run most of an hour, and that's different than I used to approach the prayer piece."
Back to work
Barnhart returned to work in September, but not before having two balloons placed in his heart to clear aortal blockage. Then, in early September, he lost his balance and fell upon an upended chair. The chair's metal legs caused a four-and-a-half inch gash to open in his stomach lining. He underwent another surgery.
But now he is back at work, and aiming for a long-distance run in May, perhaps in Kansas City or Oklahoma City.
David Williams, principal at Prairie Park, said Barnhart's return was welcome.
"He's more like his old self than he was when he first came back (in September)," he said. "He's just gotten stronger, and just done really, really well."
Williams said children noticed Barnhart's weight loss, and that he moved slower.
But, "they realized he was the same old Mr. Barnhart," Williams said.
And now that he's taken up his familiar spot as Prairie Park's unofficial greeter, things seem back to normal.
"It's wonderful to be back. I missed it," he said. "I'm alive for some reason. ... I love these kids, and I can make a difference. I think I've been kept alive to make a difference."
There's one thing he'll do for sure: Get a flu shot. He's looking forward to getting one this week. He hopes others will use his illness as motivation to get the vaccine.
"This is what we can do, because I don't hear any of these medical people saying these diseases are going to become less. I hear them saying they're going to get worse," he said.