Charlie Hinderliter wasn't opposed to the flu shot. He didn't have a problem with vaccinations. He was one of about 53 percent of Americans who just don't get one.
"I figured [the flu] was something that's dangerous to the elderly and the young, not somebody who is healthy and in their 30s," says Hinderliter, who is 39 and the director of government affairs at the St. Louis Realtors association.
"Turns out, I was wrong," he says.
An estimated 80,000 Americans died of the flu, or flu-related complications, last winter, according to initial estimates from CDC presented in September. It was the highest number of flu related deaths in decades, and Hinderliter was nearly among them. Now, after 58 days in the hospital, a week in a medically induced coma, two surgeries and three weeks in a nursing home, he's speaking out to encourage everyone to do something he'd never done before: Get a flu shot.
"We were really worried"
Hinderliter came down with the flu back in January. His wife got it too, but for Hinderliter there were other signs of trouble.
He had a high fever, his heart rate was up and most concerning, his blood pressure had plummeted. Nurse practitioner Megan Fjellanger realized there was something really wrong.
"You looked terrible," Fjellanger told him. "We were really worried about you."
Fjellanger recommended he go to the emergency room. By the time he got there, his organs were failing. His flu had led to pneumonia and then to sepsis, a life-threatening complication from infections that can cause organs to fail.
Hinderliter was put into a medically induced coma for over a week. His father and brother flew in from out of town and were told they may need to say goodbye.
Many flu-related deaths are caused not by the flu itself but by secondary infections and complications, including pneumonia and inflammation of the heart, brain or muscle tissues. And the flu can increase the risk of having a heart attack, according to a study published earlier this year.
It's hard to say why the flu hit Hinderliter so hard. His primary care doctor, Kevin King at Mercy Clinic in St. Louis County, says there are several factors that can predispose people to complications from the flu including a weakened immune system and age. About 70 percent of hospitalizations and 90 percent of flu-related deaths occurred in people over 65 in the 2017-2018 flu season, according to the CDC.
Hinderliter was an otherwise healthy 38-year-old. But King says there's still a risk for people like him.
"It doesn't matter how healthy you are going in," King says.
Reducing the risks
King says the flu shot is important even at times, like last winter, when the season's flu shot was not particularly effective. Last year, the most prominent virus was the nasty H3N2 influenza strain, which is why it was so deadly. The flu vaccine doesn't offer complete protection; the CDC estimates that flu vaccination reduces the risk of the virus by about 40 to 60 percent. But getting the shot is still important, because you'll likely get a milder case if you've been vaccinated.
"It's not just for preventing the illness itself. We're trying to prevent the severity of the illness, and in the end we're just trying to prevent people from dying," King says.
For Charlie Hinderliter, life did get better. He left the hospital in March and spent three weeks rehabbing in a nursing home — the same nursing home where his grandmother was being treated for advanced dementia. It was not an experience he had expected to have.
"The family members that came to visit got a twofer. They got to visit me and her," jokes Hinderliter.
On April 16th, two days before his 39th birthday, he got out of the nursing home and went home for the first time in three months. He started driving again in May, started working part time in June and got back to the office in August.
But the experience was still gnawing at him. He lay awake at night trying to process everything he's been through this year. And he decided to share his experience on Twitter as an example of why people should get the flu shot.
"If this story can be beneficial to others then I certainly want to be able to do that," he says.
Slowly, life is returning to normal for Hinderliter, except for one thing. In September, for the first time he can remember, he got a flu shot.
Bram Sable-Smith (@besables) is a health reporter based in Madison, Wis.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Maybe this is you. You see the signs at work or your pharmacy - flu shots available. But when are you going to make time, and do these shots really work anyway? This next story may change the way you think. Last year was one of the deadliest flu seasons in decades. An estimated 80,000 Americans died, and a 39-year-old St. Louis man was almost one of them. Now he's encouraging everyone to do something he had never done before. Bram Sable-Smith reports.
BRAM SABLE-SMITH, BYLINE: Charlie Hinderliter wasn't opposed to the flu shot. He's not against vaccinations or anything like that.
CHARLIE HINDERLITER: I figured this is something that's dangerous to the elderly and the young, not to somebody who's healthy and in their 30s.
SABLE-SMITH: Charlie is 39. He's director of government affairs at the St. Louis Realtors Association. And like more than half of Americans, he didn't get one. He just didn't think he needed a flu shot.
HINDERLITER: As it turns out, I was wrong.
SABLE-SMITH: Wrong. Like, 58 days in the hospital, a week in a medically-induced coma, two surgeries, three weeks in a nursing home - that kind of wrong. Nine months after he first came down with the flu, Charlie's still getting medical checkups, like with his nurse practitioner, Megan Fjellanger.
MEGAN FJELLANGER: I know you sent a message the other day that you were having some congestion, runny nose. How are you doing with that?
HINDERLITER: Fine. Still have a cough, but by and large, symptoms have improved.
SABLE-SMITH: Fjellanger was actually the first person to realize something was really wrong back in January. Charlie came in. He already knew he had the flu. Actually, his wife had it, too. But Fjellanger was concerned.
FJELLANGER: He looked terrible.
SABLE-SMITH: She recommended Charlie go to the ER. By the time he'd got there, he had organ failure. Charlie's flu had led to pneumonia and then to sepsis, a life-threatening complication that can cause organs to fail. Charlie was put into a medically-induced coma for over a week. His father and brother flew in from out of town and were told they may need to say goodbye.
HINDERLITER: I knew when I woke up that I'd been near death.
SABLE-SMITH: His muscles had atrophied. The doctors were worried about brain damage. He needed a feeding tube to eat.
HINDERLITER: I basically was bed-bound. I had to have help to move to a chair.
SABLE-SMITH: All of this from the flu. It's hard to say why it hit Charlie so hard. His doctor, Kevin King, says, sure, there are things that can predispose people to complications from the flu - age, a lack of immunity. But Charlie was young and healthy.
KEVIN KING: It can affect anybody. And it doesn't matter how healthy you're going in.
SABLE-SMITH: And that's why King says the flu shot is important for everybody. It doesn't offer complete protection. But if you get vaccinated and still get the flu, you'll likely get a milder case. Things did get better for Charlie. Eventually, he left the hospital and spent three weeks rehabbing in a nursing home, the same one where his grandmother was being treated for advanced dementia.
HINDERLITER: Which was not an experience I expected. But all the family members that came to visit got a twofer. You know, they got to visit her and me.
SABLE-SMITH: On April 16, two days before his 39th birthday, he got out of the nursing home and went to his home for the first time in three months. He started driving again in May, working part time in June, got back to the office in August. But the experience was still gnawing at him.
HINDERLITER: I was laying awake at nights still kind of trying to process what I'd gone through this year. So I took to Twitter to share that and used my story as an example of this is why you should get a flu shot.
SABLE-SMITH: Slowly life is returning to normal for Charlie except for one thing. In September, for the first time he can remember, he got a flu shot. For NPR News, I'm Bram Sable-Smith. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.