At 2:58 on Wednesday afternoon, Bernard Bunning’s cellphone buzzed. He’d vowed to ignore calls while standing vigil over his wife’s hospital bed at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Roseville. But something made him answer this one.
On the phone was a woman he’d never heard of before, saying, “We know your wife, Lesley, is in trouble, and God sent us to her to pray for a miracle,” Bunning recalled. With the push of social media, Lesley Bunning’s fight for survival over bodily damage caused by the H1N1 influenza virus had apparently gone viral.
By Thursday night, strangers had joined friends and family gathered under the window of Lesley Bunning’s room in the intensive-care unit to form a large circle, all holding hands, uttering healing prayers. One young woman unknown to Bernard Bunning got down on her knees, he said.
Then, Bunning was contacted out of the blue by a Buddhist monk in Sri Lanka. Next, the family heard from people in Italy, Mexico, Russia, Ukraine, the Philippines. Mormon elders came by the hospital to bestow a special status on Lesley Bunning. Jehovah’s Witnesses sent their prayers. Catholics, too.
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“Her case has touched so many people of different religions,” Bernard Bunning said of his wife Friday. “This has gone across the world.”
“It’s word of mouth, social media,” said her daughter Tamara Alsbergé, 33. “This shows the impact she had on people. They say you get out of this world what you put in.”
Lesley Bunning may be on her death bed – but a promising turn of events Thursday night in the condition of her lungs is giving the Granite Bay family 11th-hour hope. Whereas a previous X-ray showed her lungs were full of fluid, the latest image indicated perhaps a 20 percent improvement, her family said.
Throughout the Sacramento region, many residents have suffered the ill effects of the potent H1N1 strain of the flu that’s circulating this season. In Sacramento County alone, statistics released late Friday by the county Department of Health and Human Services show that 115 people have been treated in local intensive-care units for influenza-like symptoms, and 27 people have died from complications triggered by the H1N1 virus.
State officials lamented Friday that the number of flu deaths in California continues to rise, with the fatality count jumping from a week ago by 41 cases, bringing the state total to 243. Only people 64 and younger are officially counted. Because an additional 41 deaths are under investigation by the state Department of Public Health, the death toll released next week will almost certainly rise.
State officials said those who experience flu symptoms should contact their physician immediately. Antiviral medications are available to combat the flu, but they are most effective when administered quickly. The majority of those getting sick with the flu this season are between the ages of 40 and 64.
State officials are hoping that peak season activity will soon slow down. Most of those who died of the flu experienced onset of their illness weeks ago. Hospitals are reporting fewer outpatient visits and fewer hospitalizations than a few weeks ago, giving epidemiologists hope that an end is in sight.
“The downward trend in the number of influenza cases is a good sign, but the season is far from over,” said Dr. Ron Chapman, the state’s health department director.
The statistical decrease in new flu cases comes too late to help Lesley Bunning, who has been in Kaiser’s ICU and in a medically induced coma since Jan. 9, her family said.
Bunning, 61, is a giver, a charitable sort who’s known to have taken the shoes off her feet to give to older women in need, returning home barefoot, said Maureen Martindale, 56, Bunning’s younger sister. She has often helped others, whether it’s by brightening up an office with fresh flowers, putting out food when no one expects it or giving gas money to strangers.
She’s eccentric, artistic, a problem-solver, ambidextrous and a “mirror writer,” someone with both left- and right-brain acuity sharp enough to allow her to write backward – so when the words are held up to a mirror, they can be read, her family said.
She is also the founder of a tax negotiation firm that takes on the Internal Revenue Service on behalf of clients.
When The Bee wrote about her business in 2003, she was described as having “the tenacity of a bulldog” in negotiating with the IRS. She was quoted as saying, “I don’t like to lose. Not because I like to win, but because when I lose, the client loses. Clients have pregnant wives, illnesses. They’re not only broke, they’re scared. They’re afraid they’ll lose their house. This money is their children’s soccer, fuel for the car. I have to win for them.”
Before Bunning came down with influenza, her husband had shaken it off. Her father-in-law was the first to catch the virus, around Christmas Day, and was hospitalized with double pneumonia. He pulled through.
But on New Year’s Eve, Lesley Bunning, who had no underlying health issues, took a punch from the powerful H1N1 virus.
“During the night, I heard her lungs rattling,” Bernard Bunning said. “So at 4 in the morning, I had to carry her to the car.”
The couple was at their second home, in Nevada, and drove to see a personal doctor in Sacramento. She was put on inhalers and strong antibiotics. A day later, Lesley Bunning was in the hospital, and about to be sent home, when she was overwhelmed with nausea and vomiting.
She had shunned the flu shot. The whole family did – until now. “We didn’t get flu shots because people have said to us they are dangerous, and we were on that side of the argument,” Alsbergé said. “My mom had such a powerful immune system, she said she couldn’t get sick.”
Now, Alsbergé said, the family believes “it’s senseless not to get a flu shot. Why would you take that risk? We are educated people, but we weren’t educated enough to understand that this can happen.”
By Jan. 18, Bernard Bunning said, “We thought we were going to lose her.” Then her doctors at Kaiser ordered a special “roto-bed” to rotate her body at an angle that took the weight of built-up fluid off her lungs. By this time, she was breathing with the help of a respirator.
Unlike many who fall hard to the H1N1 virus, Lesley Bunning did not suffer damage to her kidney or liver. But she went into cardiac arrest, and her medical team had to manually use a heart pump for up to three hours to keep her alive. She has suffered two collapsed lungs and a stroke.
“This is how sneaky the H1N1 virus is,” Bernard Bunning said. He said doctors have told him that “the virus is long gone, having been treated with massive doses of Tamiflu. But it triggered a full-blown case of ARDs (acute respiratory distress).”
Lesley Bunning’s family has been unable to communicate with her for weeks. Her body is swollen with 38 or 39 liters of fluid that needs to be drained before she can undergo a CAT scan to determine the extent of scarring in her lungs. That information will allow her family to determine her quality of life should she survive. If she needs a respirator to survive, they’ve said they will not artificially prolong her life.
Dr. Angelique Tjen-A-Looi is a specialist in infectious disease for Kaiser Permanente in Sacramento. She describes the effect H1N1 has on patients this way: “When patients get sick with the flu, that causes inflammation in the lungs and makes it hard for them to breathe. Then, while in the ICU on ventilation, the immune system is at risk. What happens is the patients’ plumbing gets altered, so fluid leaks into tissues and causes people to swell up. The body can’t keep up with the fluids, so blood vessels leak and they can leak out almost anywhere.”
The family is encouraged that Lesley Bunning has hung in there for such an extended period of time. The H1N1 virus is so virulent that some patients die within days because their organs shut down.
Doctors have warned the family that she has been near death several times, but she has bounced back. “There have been lots of miracles along the way,” her husband said.
He added that he was surprised that people the world over are praying for his wife. “They call themselves prayer warriors,” Bernard Bunning said. “Their mission in life is to do healing prayers. They claim that the power of people connecting with each other, holding hands in the prayer circle, has the power to heal.”
“It’s been very moving,” he said.