Healthy Choices

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Heaven can wait: Flu-stricken grandma 'not done yet' after seeing visions

03/21/2014 12:00 AM

10/08/2014 11:45 AM

Lesley Bunning had so many close calls in the intensive care unit, she nearly gave up. It was getting too hard to breathe. Her family, too, suffered as they agonized through “quality of life” and organ-donation discussions.

But something gave Bunning the will to persevere against the H1N1 flu virus, and hope to her husband and three daughters. Actually, it was a lot of somethings.

First, there were the numerous healing prayers from friends, the faithful, even strangers overseas. Social media spread the word, and hundreds – perhaps thousands – of people worldwide who call themselves “prayer warriors” responded by appealing to a higher power on Bunning’s behalf.

Then there were the doctors and nurses at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Roseville, where Bunning was hospitalized for 10 weeks until Thursday, when she graduated to Kaiser’s rehabilitation facility in Vallejo. She’s expected to come home to Granite Bay in three weeks.

There was karma, which, daughter Tamra Alsbergé hypothesized, was giving back tenfold the good will that Bunning had given to others over her 62 years.

There was the supportive habit family and friends developed of placing their hands on Bunning while she was deathly ill and saying, “Take our energy, take our strength.”

And, of course, there’s Bunning’s devotion to her grandchildren.

“I told my husband that I’m coming through because I’ve got grandbabies,” Bunning said from her hospital bed Thursday, as 6-month-old Naomi Johnson busily crawled over the bedcovers. “I didn’t get this far not to make it.”

Then, once in a great while, mysterious forces come into play when life brushes up against death.

Perhaps it was an out-of-body experience, Bunning said. “I thought I was dying because I couldn’t get my breath. Then these two big hands of a gigantic man grabbed me and he said, ‘It’s not your time.’ ” She said he advised her to count “one-two-three-four-five” through the difficult breaths. “I counted, then I could breathe. I can’t tell if it was a person or an epiphany. He said, ‘You’re not done yet.’ ”

Alsbergé said her mother described the figure as wearing armor, like an ancient warrior. When Bunning regained her speech, about a week ago, she asked for the man, who she reasoned may have been a nurse, so she could thank him for saving her life.

Whatever transpired, Bunning says she’s a changed woman. Having been intubated, on respirators, rotated around in a special roto-bed to take the weight off her fragile lungs – all while being kept in a medically induced coma for 50 days – gives Bunning pause. She also was administered Tamiflu, an anti-viral medication that targets the H1N1 virus; fed nutrients through a tube; and underwent numerous chest X-rays.

“I’ve always been like a Tasmanian devil, like a whirlwind, a very hyper lady,” she said. Now, she said, she’s been reborn as “flu-shot Grandma,” destined to visit as many school grounds as she can manage, preaching the right way to make it through the flu season – with a flu shot. “I’m going to come up with a campaign for the flu shot. Maybe that’s what I’m meant to do now.”

Alsbergé said the family envisions starting a foundation and locating it right across the street from Kaiser Permanente’s hospital in Roseville. It would be dedicated to the mission of getting people vaccinated, she said.

One thing’s for certain – this is a family that sticks together. All five of them work at the family business, an accounting and tax preparation firm. “Our lives have always revolved around tax season,” said daughter Allison Johnson. This is the first tax season her mother’s missed in 32 years.

Bunning said she’s befuddled as to why she survived and so many others didn’t. Statewide, nearly 400 people have died of the flu. “I don’t understand, why me,” she said. “Why, when six people are in the ER, and five leave in body bags, why the one remaining is me.”

The difficulties of making it through H1N1 and the acute respiratory disease it triggered stay with Bunning. “The memory is terrible. What’s so scary is not being able to get enough oxygen to take a breath.”

The numerous chest X-rays have not shown improvement in Bunning’s lungs, Johnson said. “Medically, we don’t know how she’s breathing on her own.” The family said Bunning may face life with a respiratory disorder, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, which involves chronic bronchitis and emphysema.

Still, her doctors say Bunning had a remarkable immune system and ability to fight the H1N1 virus strain. They also credit the integrated team of physicians, nurses, pharmacists, respiratory and physical therapists and spiritual care chaplains for coordinating care to manage her respiratory illness. Also helpful were the state-of-the-art ventilators, according to her doctors.

Bunning says she is grateful to be alive. Her daughters think more is at play than just modern medicine.

“It’s a miracle,” said Johnson. “They said her lungs are probably trashed beyond repair, that maybe she’d had a stroke. We didn’t know if she was brain-dead or not because the doctors couldn’t do a CAT scan. The doctors, they’ve been good, but there’s more going on here.”

Bunning’s husband, Bernard, said, “This has truly been a miracle and has touched our family in more ways than I can express. Somehow saying ‘thank you’ didn’t seem to be enough to show our appreciation, so we decided to pay it forward. We are creating Project Help so other families that find themselves in situations like ours have a place to find answers ... support and help.”

About This Blog

Sacramento Bee reporters Cynthia Craft and Sammy Caiola write about community health issues in the Sacramento region. Their work is in conjunction with the California Endowment, a non-profit health foundation created in 1996.

Cynthia H. Craft is The Sacramento Bee's senior writer on health. She graduated from Ohio State University and previously worked at the Los Angeles Times and California Journal. She was a fellow in 2012 at the National Library for Medicine in Washington, D.C. at the National Institute for Health. Reach her at ccraft@sacbee.com or 916-321-1270. Twitter: @cynthiahcraft.

Sammy Caiola joined The Sacramento Bee as a health reporter in 2014. She is a recent graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, where she was a Top 10 finisher in the William Randolph Hearst College Journalism Awards. Reach her at scaiola@sacbee.com or 916-321-1636. Twitter: @SammyCaiola.

 

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