Teenager Jenny Spell thought she sidestepped the flu bug running through her West Palm Beach home. When she caught it, the high schooler with the unshakable sunny disposition just couldn’t shake this virus. Despite multiple trips to the doctor, her health rapidly deteriorated until her worried mother took her to Palms West Hospital in Loxahatchee.
“I went into the hospital thinking — just as I was told by her doctors — that she just had the flu and needed fluids,” said Anne Spell, a teacher at King’s Academy. “That is the common misperception people have. They think if you have the flu, you might get a little sick and you’ll need some fluids and then you’ll be fine.”
Jenny, 16 at the time, was far from fine.
This particular virus — a nasty mutating type of the bird flu known as H3N2 — had found its way to Jenny’s heart. To save her life, Palms West reached out to renowned pediatrician Dr. Gerald Lavandosky, who called in Trauma Hawk to fly her to Joe DiMaggio Children’s Hospital in Hollywood.
At Joe DiMaggio, doctors immediately snaked a tube down Jenny’s throat to open up an airway and put her on a heart-and-lung machine. Doctors told her mother they didn’t expect Jenny — never sick a day in her life — to survive the night.
“Jenny was the sickest patient I’ve ever cared for with the flu and probably one of the sickest patients I’ve ever cared for,” said Lavandosky, managing director at Pediatric Critical Care of South Florida, the pediatric critical care unit at Joe DiMaggio.
The teenager spent 241 days — about two-thirds of a year — at Joe DiMaggio after going into cardiogenic shock, meaning the heart can’t pump enough blood to sustain your body. Her organs started failing one by one. Liver. Pancreas. Gall bladder. Kidneys. She contracted a deadly fungal infection and suffered an aneurysm in her abdomen.
She returned home in a wheelchair and dialysis-dependent.
Jenny received a kidney from a family friend in December. In the meantime, she had to learn how to walk, write, even eat again. She still wears a brace on her right leg. And just last month, she had another surgery because of the numerous medical treatments that saved her life.
Now 18 and still recovering 2 1/2 years later, Jenny is coming forward not only to thank the doctor who saved her life but also to encourage people to get a flu shot, ignore the naysayers. She knows if she could, she would go back and get a shot.
And what does she think when she hears people say they don’t have time for a flu shot or that they will get sick from it?
“It is very frustrating people don’t immunize their kids from it because they think people can actually get the flu from it and it is actually saving their kids from something horrible,” Jenny said. “But they don’t listen.”
Her mother hopes by publicizing her daughter’s life-and-death wrestling match with the flu that other parents will immunize their children.
“Jenny’s story is helpful to get the word out that we can help other people and help our kids not be at risk for what Jenny suffered. Her suffering was beyond what most people can even imagine,” Anne Spell said.
“It is not well known that the flu can be that dangerous. It is not just the elderly and the babies who get the flu and pass away from it. It can happen to anybody. And you never know whether it will happen to you or your child.”
But Jenny’s story is more than just about how a common virus can take a nasty turn.
Her story is one of spirit over impossible circumstances. Her family didn’t take it day-by-day, but hour-by-hour.
‘I’m not dead yet’
And indeed, if anyone needs to know the definition of pluck, then an introduction to Jenny Spell is in order. She took the glass-half-full attitude even as her body refused to reboot.
“Well, I wasn’t dead yet. You got to be positive about that,” the teen says with stand-up comedic timing.
Before the flu hit her in early October 2014, Jenny just made it on the varsity soccer team at King’s Academy. She particularly excelled at musical theater. She danced in a school drama production at King’s Academy just a week before she was hit by the illness.
Why the flu nearly killed her is unknown. Her mother and a brother contracted the flu before her but fought it off.
“That is the kind of scary thing about these viruses,” said Dr. Lavandosky. “Once they invade the body, you really can’t predict which organs are going to be affected.”
She missed out on the wedding of her eldest sister because of an attack of pancreatitis. She takes her classes online rather than with her friends. But she hasn’t missed out on everything.
Since she couldn’t go to her prom, Jenny helped start one at the hospital. Now it’s a big event for Joe DiMaggio, catering to patients who would otherwise be missing out on one of life’s touchstones. She was “ambassador” at a big black-tie hospital fundraiser.
“The patient’s spirit and the patient’s motivation are really key to this story,” Lavandosky said. “Without it, I don’t think Jenny would have come as far as she has.”
The teen credits her family, her friends, the man who donated his kidney, the staff at Joe DiMaggio and the “community of support.” And, of course, Dr. Lavandosky.
“I called him Superman because I didn’t know his name because I first met him after I was on life support,” she said. “And he looks like Superman and he was Superman to me because he flew me to Joe DiMaggio and saved my life.”
Lavandosky said the chief lesson from Jenny ‘s case is that vaccines are the best form of illness prevention.
Yet, in the alternative facts world, vaccines are the enemy to a small, but vocal group who blame a conspiracy of health officials, pharmaceutical companies and mainstream media.
For doctors and medical professionals, the movement is a weed that sprouted up over a much-discredited report linking autism and vaccinations. President Donald Trump has long made the erroneous link about vaccines that health officials say is undermining the nation’s defense against outbreaks of serious disease.
Stimulate those antibodies
“The number one reason people say they don’t want to get the flu shot is they got one in the past and it gave them the flu,” said Timothy O’Connor, spokesman for the Health Department in Palm Beach County. “But it is not a live vaccine. It is a dead virus. It just stimulates your antibodies. People often confuse the flu with a common cold.”
The influenza vaccine each year is a guessing game for infectious disease specialists. A new version is developed twice a year to keep up with the ever-changing virus. Experts pick four specific flu strains — two each from the “A” and “B” types of the virus — for the vaccine.
In 2017, researchers appeared to have guessed right with reports that the flu vaccine is pretty effective. Still, the flu season is here with widespread activity reported in Florida as urgent care visits increased and three flu-related deaths have been reported. Health officials say it is not too late to get a flu shot.
The symptoms of the flu include fever, body aches, lethargy, sore throat, coughing. What makes it deadly to newborns and the elderly is that it can lead in some cases to pneumonia. For most, it’s time in bed and out of work.
Dr. Gustavo Ferrer, a pulmonologist at the Cleveland Clinic’s intensive care unit in Weston said Jenny’s story is more common than one would think. “I have seen this many times,” he said. “I still follow patients that went through similar horrible things.”
He says people need to know the red flags for when the flu has taken a turn for the worst: persistent fever for more than three days, coughing up blood, heavy chest pain and massive mucus production. “Most kids, teenagers — they wait too long to get medical attention,” he said.
Ferrer is not a big fan of most over-the-counter medications, noting that scientific evidence is more supportive as chicken soup, which helps boost the immune system.
was going to stave off this flu virus.
Jenny needed something more than chicken soup or NyQuil. Getting her on Joe DiMaggio’s state-of-the-art heart-and-lung machine ECMO as soon as possible was key. “She would not have survived without it,” Lavandosky said.
But ECMO is also a gamble. Each day a patient is on the machine their chances to ever get off decrease by half. Jenny was on ECMO for five days.
“It was critical,” Anne Spell said. “She did come off of life support. She got her heart function back, which was miraculous but her kidney function, her liver function, all of her other organs were still in jeopardy. The virus attacked everything.”
“If there was a complication or setback, it seemed like Jenny got every bit of it,” Lavandosky said. “She had a lot of secondary problems.”
On Dec. 22, Jenny received a kidney from a family friend who wanted to be tested to see if he was a match for Jenny “because it was the right thing to do.”
Her classmates named her homecoming queen in the fall and Jenny hopes to walk with her graduation class and maybe even speak at the ceremony. She is mulling over her college choices and what her future holds. She wants to study pre-pharmacy and be an ICU pharmacist, inspired by two staffers at Joe DiMaggio.
“I think if I was going to die, I should have died by now. I think God has a plan if I’m still there,” she said.
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When the flu gets critical
Here are some signs that the virus has gotten bad.
- Persistent fever for more than three days.
- Coughing up blood.
- Heavy chest pain.
- Massive mucus production.