How one woman brought new life into the world as she sat on death’s door
As the H1N1 pandemic broke in October 2009 and people lined up at the newly opened vaccination clinics, Amburlea Carlson sat in an induced coma in her bed at Foothills Medical Centre. While news headlines told the stories of this new dangerous virus, Amburlea had already been fighting it for over a month.
“I felt like I was coughing a lot, I couldn’t really breathe. I felt like I had a severe cold,” Carlson says of the symptoms she was experiencing when she went to the emergency room.
Before being admitted, Carlson described herself as a very healthy 28 year old who worked out five days a week, and admittedly had never seen the necessity of getting a flu shot.
Carlson was one of 1,276 Albertans hospitalized during the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, a significantly higher number than this flu season when there were 884 hospitalized cases. But Alberta Health Services ran out of the vaccine on Jan. 9, 2014 after administering all 1,112,971 doses — only enough to cover 28 per cent of Alberta residents.
Though influenza typically affects the young and the elderly members of society, Dr. Judy MacDonald, medical officer of health for Alberta Health Services for the Calgary zone, says the H1N1 strain appears more troublesome to young adults. She says the reason for this is likely that the older generation has seen many strains of the influenza virus and have some immunity built up that the younger population simply does not.
Photo Courtesy of Amburlea Carlson
“It was so quick,” Carlson says. “Within a matter of days, I was fully paralyzed and put on full life support.” Doctors induced Amburlea into a coma to help control her treatment. Her parents hardly recognized her as she sat with 11 chest tubes draining the fluid from her lungs, amidst the humming of the machines that kept her alive.
Carlson remained in a coma for nearly three months. There were moments where they almost lost her and needed to shock her with the paddles to bring her back. Other nights she was simply given high doses of pain killers to make her comfortable while she was expected to pass away. Although she was in a coma, Amburlea says she was able to hear most of what was going on around her.
“I remember a boy beside me, I believe he was 17, passing away and you could hear all the family there crying and stuff. It was devastating,” Carlson says. “I remember thinking ‘Am I going to make it?’ I’m probably not going to make it.”
There was one point where doctors told her parents, who had been at her bedside through the entire experience, ‘she isn’t going to make it, you’d better pray to your god.’
But Carlson wasn’t just fighting for her own life — she was a single mother also fighting for her unborn daughter. Carlson was admitted into the hospital during the early part of her pregnancy, and although doctors worked to save both of them, their focus was on Carlson. She had been pumped with countless medications and been so close to death that they did not believe the baby had survived and were amazed when they found a heartbeat.
Carlson was brought out of her coma for the caesarian section, and Briar-Rose was born on Dec. 15, 2009, nearly four months premature and weighing in at just over two pounds.
Photo Courtesy of Amburlea Carlson“She came out, she cried, and then she stopped breathing so she went up to the NICU,” Amburlea says. “They said it would be very critical over the next 72 hours and they weren’t sure how she would do, her quality of life would probably never be there. She probably wouldn’t walk. She probably wouldn’t talk.”
But Briar-Rose does all of that.
Today, four years after Amburlea went into the hospital, they are both back home in Strathmore, Alta. Briar-Rose runs around the house like any other kid, digging her fingers into the last of the icing from her pack of Dunk-a-Roos cookies. She sits on her mom’s lap, looking through old photos — something Briar-Rose wasn’t able to do until a few months ago after having surgery on her eyes to restore her vision, one of many health complications that Briar-Rose and Amburlea have still had to deal with.
“It’s been a tough road,” Carlson says. Luckily she has had the support of her parents, who took her and baby Briar-Rose in during their initial recovery. Briar-Rose has mild cerebral palsy, still has another surgery scheduled for her vision, and she wears braces on her legs. They do physiotherapy and speech classes on a regular basis.
Developmentally, Briar-Rose is very tiny, still only fitting into size two clothes, and her 11-month old sister is quickly catching up to her. But mostly, Amburlea worries about her respiratory and immune system.
“We do have to be really careful with Briar-Rose, because if she was to get H1N1, I don’t know how she would do to be honest,” Carlson says. “The doctors have said they don’t know if she would survive, her lungs being so damaged.”
And while Carlson has worked hard to raise her miracle baby, she did so while travelling her own path to recovery, a path that she still hasn’t reached the end of.
Photo by Roxanne Blackwell
“I felt like life ended when I got it, it felt like starting over again,” Carlson says. She had to re-learn how to walk again, how to drive again, and how to speak again, although her voice is now weakened and not what it used to be.
“I couldn’t even brush my teeth. I had to rely on my parents for a lot of things,” she says.
Carlson still struggles with the ramifications of her illness years later. “My body just can’t keep up and do the same things it used to,” she says. Carlson struggles with pain in her hands and feet from the nerve damage she suffered, and has issues with everyday memory loss. Similar to Briar-Rose, Carlson also has severe issues with her breathing.
“When I get colds or get sick, even just a bladder or kidney infection, I’m usually in the hospital,” she says.
Despite all of the health complications, Carlson keeps moving onward and devotes herself to giving Briar-Rose everything that she needs. Although she says she sometimes feels guilty and responsible for some of the challenges in Briar-Rose’s life, Carlson continues to watch her improve. “They said she would never have a quality of life, she would never walk, she would never talk. She’s doing all of those and above. She does dance, she does swimming, she’s very outgoing,” she says as she gleams at Briar-Rose.
But Carlson also hopes that other people don’t have to ever go through the same struggles that she does, and encourages people to take proactive measures to avoid contracting this common virus.
“Take care of your health, make sure you’re immunized,” she says. “Yes, it is hours in a line up and you have to wait in a big room and there are hundreds of people, but there’s a reason there’s that line up and there’s a reason there are hundreds of people there. You could be waiting for hours in that room or you could be waiting for months in that hospital bed to maybe pass away. That’s all I can say.”