STOWE, Vt. -
Jason Kirchick loves his Stowe community. So much so, he became a volunteer firefighter and EMT in town, though he never thought he'd be the one needing rescue.
"A lot of people ask, 'How did you get it?' And I just say, 'Anyone can get it,'" Kirchick said.
Kirchick was a healthy 33-year-old until he got sick in January, very sick. It started with a high fever. Within a few days it got a lot worse.
"The last thing I remember is I got out of bed and had completely messed the bed and was vomiting and was so sick," Kirchick said.
By the time he got to Fletcher Allen Health Care in Burlington, Kirchick was in septic shock and in a coma.
"I missed my flu shot last year and I kick myself for it," he said. "I will not miss another flu shot ever again."
Kirchick was infected with influenza, the H1N1 strain. And it was bad.
Kirchick said, "They didn't think, at least two times, where they called my partner and said we don't know if he will make it through the night; you need to get down here."
Here was Fletcher Allen's Intensive Care Unit.
"Jason was probably one of the sickest patients I have ever taken care of in our medical ICU," Terese Daigle said. She was one of his nurses in the ICU.
"He went into multisystem organ failure," she explained. "His lungs were failing, he was on a respirator, his kidneys failed, he was on dialysis, he was in cardiovascular collapse, requiring medications to support his blood pressure-- pretty much on total life support."
"I think he was about as sick as you can be with influenza and survive," said Dr. Joshua Farkas of FAHC.
Fletcher Allen treated 250 flu patients this flu season. That's down from 310 last flu season. But what made this year particularly bad is the severity of the cases and the length of stays for patients here in the ICU.
"We saw a lot of patients with extremely low levels of oxygen who required intensive ventilator support," Farkas said.
And, like Kirchick, a lot of the patients were young. Kirchick spent three months in ICU, unconscious most of that time. And nothing seemed to be working; he was dying. Doctors were scrambling.
"We were at our wits' end to try to come up with anything that could possibly improve him," Farkas said.
Fletcher Allen then tried a controversial rescue therapy called proning. It's used when patients are in severe respiratory distress. Doctors used drugs to paralyze Kirchick to take complete control of his lung function. Teams then rotated him on to his stomach, trying to get air into the damaged areas of his lungs. The technique can improve oxygen levels.
"It's a scary procedure," Farkas said.
Scary because the rarely used procedure puts patients at greater risk of injury, breathing tube obstruction, the tubes can fall out completely, and patients can more easily suffer sores and nerve damage from the process and paralytic drug.
"We felt it was essentially our only option," Farkas said, "so we went ahead and did it."
Fletcher Allen also tried an antiviral experimental drug to help Kirchick fight the flu. It's called Zanamivir. The intravenous medication is still being studied and is not approved by the Food and Drug Administration yet. But doctors pleaded with the FDA and the drugmaker, GlaxoSmithKline PLC, for it to be released to treat Kirchick. It's part of a process called Compassionate Use. The requests were granted and it arrived at Fletcher Allen 24 hours later.
"He was the most serious patient who survived," Farkas said.
Kirchick began showing improvement a couple days later.
"It was the hardest days I ever had to go through in my life," said Christian Pinillos, Kirchick's husband.
For Pinillos the watching and waiting would soon be over.
"I didn't know it would turn into a 90-day very scary journey," Pinillos said. "I was afraid. But there wasn't a day that I was not hopeful... There was thoughts and prayers and a lot of support out there and for that I think we both will be thankful. We are very lucky."
Kirchick continues his medical treatment six months later, but he's made a dramatic recovery. He had to learn to do just about everything all over again, including walking. And to his doctors' and nurses' surprise, he's breathing on his own without a ventilator. His lungs are still healing. His arm suffered nerve damage during the proning process, but he's doing physical therapy to regain strength and movement.
Reporter Darren Perron: Are you surprised he made it?
Terese Daigle: I would be lying if I said no, but he truly is our miracle patient. He beat all the odds. He really did.
Kirchick recently returned to Fletcher Allen's ICU to say thank you, surprising the team that worked so hard to keep him alive.
"I've got to give you a hug, man. I'm sorry," Farkas said to Kirchick.
"It was just an amazing thing to see him that way. Amazing," Daigle said.
An emotional reunion after a battle they fought together.
"It was scary," Kirchick said. "It changed me in a lot of ways. I've become more humbled and appreciate every day I have been given."
Thankful for a second chance.
"It makes you realize how vulnerable you are, you know?" Kirchick said. "It made me realize how precious life is."
Kirchick thinks the flu shot would have helped, either protecting him from the flu or lessening his symptoms. Though doctors say the vaccine is not 100-percent effective, they say it is your best defense.
Flu season is winding down in Vermont. The health department reports sporadic activity with a small number of cases across the state. But the H1N1 flu strain hit younger people hard this year. Though not nearly as lethal, it's a relative of the 1918 virus that killed 50 million people and similar strains circulated in the 1930s and 1940s. So, people born before the 1950s have some immunity to it; older people are better protected.Click here to learn more about the flu and the flu vaccine.
You can see raw video of Kirchick reuniting with the lifesaving team at the Fletcher Allen ICU in the video box at the top of this story.