Surviving swine flu

GRANTS PASS — Zachary Painter doesn't remember much of the past six weeks, and maybe it's just as well.

The 32-year-old Grants Pass man returned home recently from Portland's Legacy Emanuel Hospital, after complications with the H1N1 virus that nearly killed him.

Painter sat in his L Street home next to his 24-year-old girlfriend, Jessica Pierce, looking pale and 25 pounds lighter than his previous 230 pounds, on a 6-foot-2 frame.

He described nightmares, doctors telling him about the two "Pepsi cans" worth of blood and fluid they took out of his lungs, and nearly dying.

"I feel like I have a new lease on life," Painter said. "They said 10 years ago I wouldn't have survived this."

Painter and 30-year-old Jackie Cordero of Medford were taken to Portland on back-to-back days in late October, and hooked to a lung bypass machine called an extracorporeal membrane oxygenation machine. It oxygenates the blood with no help from the lungs, and also can bypass the heart and pump the blood.

There are no such machines in Southern Oregon. So far from H1N1, 49 people have been hospitalized in Josephine County with four deaths, while two have died in Jackson County with 97 hospitalized, according to the Oregon Public Health Department.

Painter, unemployed and on disability for a chronic hip ailment, was sick for more than a week when he finally went to Three Rivers Community Hospital in Grants Pass, when his temperature rose to nearly 104 and his lungs started rattling.

"I was a stubborn pighead about it," he said.

"I didn't realize it was going to be the last time I talked to him for three weeks," Pierce said. "I said 'I love you,' and they put the tube down his throat. That's when I really started to freak out."

Painter wound up at Rogue Valley Medical Center in Medford.

"At one point doctors told us to prepare for him to not make it," Pierce said. "His mother (Judy) and I were just clinging to each other."

Dr. Ilana Porzecanski, an intensive care specialist at RVMC, said Painter's X-ray was terrible, with his lungs already "soggy with secretions" as his immune system battled.

He went on a high-frequency ventilator and had improved slightly after a week, but then suffered a blood clot in his lung.

"His oxygen levels dropped dramatically, then he got a bacterial superinfection," Porzecanski said. "He was already on the edge, and I made the decision to call for outside help. His heart was starting to suffer from lack of oxygen, and becoming irregular. That's a prelude to death."

Porzecanski had talked to a trauma surgeon at Legacy a month earlier and knew the ECMO might be available. Legacy has four of them, she said.

An Oregon Air National Guard helicopter ferried a six-person team from Legacy to get Painter on the ECMO and to Portland in a ground ambulance. Cordero was taken by the team the next day.

"Without access to the ECMO both of those patients would have died here," Porzecanski said.

The ECMO involved inserting "garden-hose sized" tubes into his femoral artery, she added.

In Portland, Painter was on the ECMO for four or five days, and his lungs began to expand and heal. He finally woke up on Nov. 3, on a ventilator, and communicated by writing on a pad of paper.

"I woke up in a hospital and had no idea why I was there," Painter said. "It was almost like they stole my memory, like the Manchurian Candidate.

"I looked in the mirror and I looked like one of those concentration camp victims. Talk about chicken legs."

Painter is breathing well, but his muscles have deteriorated from lack of use. He's walked outside his house a few times, and found that looking down at Gilbert Creek was quite stimulating after being in a coma.

"My first outing was Blockbuster Video, two days ago."

He said he's given up smoking and drinking.

"My mom and Jessica still won't let me drive. Once I get better I have to get this hip replaced."

Painter graduated from Glendale High in 1995, and community members there rounded up $500 to help the cause, plus offered support and prayer chains, Pierce said.

Meanwhile, he slowly recuperates.

"I'm just trying to get my muscles back. It's kind of hard just to stand up right now."

Cordero is also recuperating, and recently held a news conference in Medford to discuss her medical situation.

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