"The flu virus can take you to death’s door in just a few hours, and I was only saved because my healthcare team followed their instincts and were not afraid to take risky decisions – and to them my family are eternally grateful."
That's the experience of Anne and Iain MacAulay from Back.
During the spring of 2014, Anne caught a strain of influenza which, within 24 hours, became a medical crisis resulting in her being flown off island for emergency life support. She is now encouraging those eligible to take up the offer of the Influenza (flu) vaccination.
Anne was working for Highlands & Islands Enterprise as Assistant Area Manager, and was fit and healthy with no underlying conditions. Her husband Iain was then the Director of Social and Community Services at Comhairle nan Eilean Siar.
Anne said, “All I felt was I was getting more and more tired, and I had a persistent cough. It was a strain of flu that within 24 hours developed into serious pneumonia and my body, unable to fight the infection, was shutting down and I was dying.
“I wasn’t aware of just how serious things were. In fact, even as they were sedating me to transport me from Western Isles Hospital to life support on the mainland, I was busy telling Iain to go to work, that it was nothing to worry about and everything was fine.”
Flu, which is often a very unpleasant illness, is especially common in winter. Flu isn’t the same as the common cold as it is caused by a different group of viruses and the symptoms tend to start more suddenly, be more severe and last longer.
Iain said, “All of a sudden our family’s world was turned upside down. We were told that life support was the only way that Anne was going to survive, and she required to be flown away to Raigmore Hospital in Inverness as soon as possible.”
However, on reaching Stornoway Airport her condition had deteriorated so much, the Scottish Air Ambulance crew made the decision to re-route her to Aberdeen Royal Infirmary.
This decision ultimately saved her life as Aberdeen Royal Infirmary had the only available adult ECMO (Extra Corporeal Manual Oxygenation) machine in Scotland at that time.
Anne continued, “I woke up two weeks later with doctors and nurses telling me how lucky I was to be alive. We are aware that I only recovered because I was given the life-saving treatment on an ECMO machine. Thankfully I had an unusually speedy recovery because I was fundamentally healthy and know I was being prayed for by my family, friends and colleagues, for which I am so grateful.”
It took Anne seven months before she was completely physically fit to get back to work, even then returning only on a phased-return basis.
The damage to her lungs from the illness is longer lasting however as, although her immune system has completely recovered, she now has asthma which is treated by a steroid inhaler.
A year after Anne’s illness and recovery, both Anne and Iain re-evaluated their lifestyle, and both took the decision to retire and spend more time with each other and their family. In addition, Anne has also taken the opportunity to commit more time to focus on her community voluntary work.
Iain said, “We were so lucky. Our family had a positive outcome, but we know others who did not.
Anne concluded, “I would like to stress that I was not feeling particularly ill, other than having a “normal” bad flu. The flu virus can take you to death’s door in just a few hours, and I was only saved because my healthcare team followed their instincts and were not afraid to take risky decisions – and to them my family are eternally grateful.
“The one thing I learned from nearly dying from flu, is that I had no idea of just how serious it can be. I would urge anyone that if they have an opportunity to protect themselves, to do it. Flu is a serious illness so please take advantage of the Influenza vaccination.”
NHS Western Isles Chief Executive, Gordon Jamieson, said: "On behalf of NHS Western Isles I would like to sincerely thank Iain and Anne for sharing their story and helping us share how serious an illness flu can potentially be. This is why the flu vaccination campaign is so important and why those eligible should not delay in making an appointment to get vaccinated."
NHS Western Isles, in conjunction with the couple, has produced a short film based on the MacAulay family’s experience, which is available to view at: https://vimeo.com/465438056
If you are eligible for a free influenza vaccination and have not yet booked an appointment, NHS Western Isles is encouraging individuals to contact NHS Western Isles on (01851) 763304 to book an appointment at one of its scheduled clinics.
Further information can be found at: www.wihb.scot.nhs.uk/flu-is-serious