John Sajtovich was a vibrant 80-year-old man. He owned his own farm, in Bay Tree, Alta, located 20-minutes from Dawson Creek B.C.

His daughter, Susan Lafleur, says given how spry and active he was, no one could have predicted his death.

“I don’t know, in one way, if I’ve still accepted the fact that he is gone just because he wasn’t really ill. My mum was ill for years and when she passed, it was her time. It was in one way relieving that she was out of pain, but he was never that way,” Lafleur says.

Lafleur says in typical form, her dad was a hardworking and supportive family man. He insisted on caring for his wife at home in her last years, refusing to put her in any kind of long term care facility.

Where it all started

Shortly following Easter in 2016, Sajtovich got the flu. This was out of the ordinary for him as he was not the type to get sick. Even the morning he was hospitalized, he still mostly felt like himself, recalls his daughter.

That morning, Sajtovich kept to his work, tending the 150 cattle he shared with his son. Feeding the herd, he noticed his hands were weakening. Not thinking much of it, he headed out for the day.

Sajtovich had a long day of work and driving ahead of him. First he drove to Spirit River, Alta, 78 km north of Grande Prairie, then Dawson Creek for business.

Flushot JohnJohn Sajtovich, 72, on his 50th wedding anniversary in November 2009, eight years before he died after flu complications. Photo courtesy of Susan Lafleur.

When he returned home, Sajtovich decided to take a nap. This was completely out of character.

By the time he woke up, Sajtovich no longer had enough strength in his hands to dress himself. He called family and was admitted to hospital in Dawson Creek.

His hands were paralyzed by the end of the day.

The next morning, when Sajtovich woke up, his legs were paralyzed as well. Because of the size of the hospital, they did not have the resources available for his case. Sajtovich was sent to the University of Alberta Hospital in Edmonton for further treatment.

Upon arrival, the paralysis had spread to Sajtovich’s lungs and he needed to be ventilated. Doctors performed a tracheotomy, a procedure that involves an incision through the windpipe to help him breathe. After this procedure, he lost his ability to speak.

Within 24 hours of his first signs of muscle weakness, Sajtovich was completely paralyzed.

The syndrome behind the paralysis

Sajtovich was diagnosed with Guillain-Barré Syndrome. The condition attacks the nervous system rather than an invasive viral or bacterial infection. In Sajtovich’s case, it was linked to his  flu.

Flushot JohnWifeHelen Mae Sajtovich and John Sajtovich on their 50th wedding anniversary in November 2009. John Sajtovich died from flu complications June 20, 2017. Photo courtesy of Susan Lafleur.Soon after the tracheotomy, Sajtovich contracted a lung infection which can happen after a tracheotomy. Though never confirmed, Sajtovich was suspected to also have a blood infection, according to what doctors told his family.

Doctors treated the infections, but the medication used to treat them created more problems. After a freight train of complications following his flu, Sajtovich’s kidneys failed and he died.

Many individuals are able to fully recover after a Guillain-Barré diagnosis. With rehabilitation, about 80 per cent of adults can walk six months after the syndrome is caught, 60 per cent fully recover after one year and five to 10 per cent have delayed or incomplete recovery. In general, children tend to recover more quickly than adults.

For Sajtovich, rehabilitation was not an option. Although, his family believes he would have rebuilt his body movement in rehabilitation quicker than average.

“Even his doctors felt if he could have gotten past that point, the rehab would have been easy for him because he had that personality of he would have worked hard to do it. He wasn’t a quitter,” Lafleur says.

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This flu season is projected to be the worst yet with 300 confirmed cases already in Alberta this year. Graphic created by Robyn Welsh.

What does this mean for vaccinations?

Sajtovich was not immunized and was part of the generally more susceptible elderly population. For those who can get their flu vaccine, immunization can mean the difference between life and death.

Though family members remain unsure a flu shot would have saved him.

“Who knows, right? Would he had not gotten that flu? I mean nobody would know that,” Lafleur says.

There are connections between Guillain-Barré Syndrome and influenza. However, Alberta Health Services’ Medical Health Officer cautions while there is a slight risk of developing the syndrome from the flu vaccine, there is a much higher risk of developing it from the influenza virus itself.

“The excess risk of developing Guillain-Barré Syndrome following the influenza vaccine is about one per million immunized,” Judy MacDonald says. “And you need to think about that because influenza infection itself is associated with Guillain-Barré Syndrome and there is a much greater risk of getting Guillain-Barré after influenza infection than after influenza vaccination. But it is still very rare.”

Edited by Amy Simpson | 

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