A late-season surge of influenza A — a strain of the flu that has made up about 99 percent of all flu cases this year — has sickened thousands of people across the country.
In Portland, it left two young girls motherless when it killed a 37-year-old woman and her unborn child.
Stephanie Shradar had gotten the flu shot back in October, as she often did at the beginning of every flu season, said her husband, Lee Shradar. He and their daughters, ages 7 and 5, followed soon after.
While Stephanie was older for a pregnant woman, she had had two uncomplicated pregnancies with her daughters and took care of herself. Her third child, a girl, was due in the fall.
So Lee didn’t think much of it when Stephanie started to feel sick March 4. Their daughter, Vera, 7, also felt a little ill.
Stephanie went to work at her architectural firm that Monday. The next day, she stayed home because she felt worse. Lee came home for lunch to check on her and ended up running to Rite Aid to get a new thermometer to make sure they could accurately gauge the fever Stephanie had started to run.
She only measured 101.5 degrees, so she took Tylenol, drank some Gatorade and rested the rest of the day.
Stephanie also called the women’s clinic at Providence where she was regularly treated. Providers there prescribed a flu medication that she took Wednesday afternoon.
It made her a little nauseated, but Lee said that Stephanie was an extreme rule-follower for these sorts of things, so followed the label on the medication.
By lunchtime Thursday, Lee was optimistic that Stephanie was getting better. She had made it downstairs to the couch to watch old episodes of “The Office” on Netflix. He gave her soup and went back to work and to take the girls to an afterschool event, only to return home by 8 p.m. to find her energy level had dropped and her face and eyes had started to swell.
They consulted the women’s clinic and Lee’s mother, a former emergency room nurse, and decided to go to the emergency room.
Stephanie never came home.
Even healthy people face a risk
Stephanie was seen in the emergency room within an hour. An X-ray showed that her chest was fine. She was connected to IVs to get fluids and medication.
Lee went home to sleep around 2 a.m. and wasn’t too surprised to find the next morning that Stephanie had been admitted into the hospital overnight.
“She’s sick and she’s pregnant it’s going to take some time to bounce back,” Lee said he thought at the time.
Pregnancy weakens the immune system so that the mother’s body doesn’t fight off the baby growing inside her. So even though she was immunized for the flu this year, she faced an increase risk.
The flu shot this year also has little protection against the strain influenza A, which has contributed to its spread and severity since mid-February.
As of the past few weeks, nearly every state and U.S. territory has reported widespread flu. So far, Oregon has reached the 2016-17 flu season levels and could exceed it to be closer to last year’s uncommonly bad year.
Nearly 99 percent of all people in Oregon who have gotten the flu this year have had influenza A. A Friday report from the Oregon Health Authority said that one child died from the flu the first week of March. The report for the week of Stephanie and her baby’s death has not come out yet. Oregon Health Authority officials declined to say how many children died this week. The state does not track adult flu deaths.
Nearly 140 people were hospitalized that week and 150 were hospitalized the week before.
While most people hospitalized for flu tend to be 65 years or older, it is important even for normally healthy people like Stephanie to seek care early if they have weak immune systems.
Pregnant women should seek medical care as early as possible if they have any of the flu symptoms, because a small fever can lead to birth defects in a baby, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Daughter born on their anniversary
Lee called off work the next day and spent most of the day with Stephanie, with breaks to take the girls to school and pick them up. She was in constant pain Friday and wanted Lee to place wet towels on her head, legs and chest, feed her ice chips and adjust the bed.
He had to spoon-feed her a lunch of soft food, and she wanted him to do the same for dinner.
But by the time he had arranged for child care, bought groceries and gotten back to the hospital, her condition had significantly worsened.
She was swollen and needed help to get to the bathroom.
That night, she was admitted to the intensive care unit, where nurses struggled to get a blood pressure reading because her heart was so weak.
“That was when the bottom was starting to fall out,” Lee said.
By then, her parents had flown in from their vacation in Arizona to Portland.
Stephanie stabilized for awhile, but at 10 a.m., doctors came out of her room to tell Lee and her parents that they had lost the baby’s heartbeat.
Lee and Stephanie had waited until the past few weeks to tell their daughters, Vera and Eisley, that they would have a new sister coming into the world soon. They were cautious because they knew complications could arise.
They had been a little unsure about the new baby. Stephanie wanted a third child badly, but Lee had worried about the time and loss of sleep and being parents of an infant for the first time in five years.
But they were joyous, if not reeling a bit from what it all meant.
Lee was devastated by the first death. But he found that at least the loss allowed everyone to laser focus on Stephanie and what she needed.
“We were really hopeful,” Lee said.
But it didn’t last long. The doctors had walked down the hall to get water and juice for Lee and Stephanie’s parents when an alarm code was announced for room 36 — Stephanie’s room.
They watched staff rush in and could hear the machines beeping. The hospital chaplain arrived.
They sat in shock watching the ICU doors open and close, open and close.
Then a doctor left Stephanie’s room to tell Lee that they lost his wife’s heartbeat for two minutes. They performed CPR and were able to get it back.
“We just came in for the flu, mind you,” Lee said. “She was strong, she was healthy. She did everything she was supposed to do. We just came in for the flu.”
Pneumonia had overtaken Stephanie’s lungs in the last four hours. During the next day or two, she was intubated, placed on dialysis and given dozens of medications to try to keep her blood pressure up and reduce her pain.
Lee’s mother and brother were in town by Saturday morning.
They all took turns holding Stephanie’s hand and whispering how much they loved her.
“We were a team and would always be a team,” Lee told her. “I needed her to fight. And she did. She did fight.”
On Sunday, her body naturally delivered the baby — a good sign, doctors said. Lee chose the name Alice May because Stephanie had suggested Alice and they both liked it. May was chosen by their daughters.
It was March 10, 18 years to the day of Lee and Stephanie’s first date as 19-year-olds at the University of Kansas.
But Stephanie was unable to pass the placenta, which meant that a plan was in place to perform surgery first thing in the morning get it out.
Lee spent most of a sleepless night in a room above Stephanie’s. Restless and worried, he sneaked downstairs to hang out with her and the night nurse while everyone else slept.
His mother came to get him in the morning, and as they left the room to meet Stephanie’s parents downstairs, a nurse rushed up to say that another alarm had gone off in Stephanie’s room.
Doctors tried several times to keep her heart beating, and finally the family agreed to a last-ditch effort surgery.
At 8:25 a.m. Monday, a doctor told them that Stephanie had died.
‘She would want to be an advocate’
A week later, Lee still found it unfathomable that this vital woman he had spent his entire adult life with was gone because of the flu.
Stephanie was young, healthy and positive, Lee said. She was committed to a successful architecture career and felt she was thriving in her current workplace. After wanting a dog for years, they had just adopted a puppy last year.
Lee knows what it’s like to lose a parent. His father died when he was 8, almost the same age as Vera. And now Lee had to give her and her sister the same horrible news.
He said he has been surrounded with friends and family, support and love. A family friend started a GoFundMe to raise money for Vera and Eisley’s future education. Lee said he doesn’t want them to miss out on college or more than the loss of their mom.
“I want to be able to provide what my parents provided us for our girls,” Lee said.
And he hopes that at least Stephanie’s death could help raise awareness.
“I think that she would want to be an advocate for people getting help when they need it and not waiting too long.”