If you are a leukemia patient or a stem cell transplant patient, you know that your immune system is compromised and one of your biggest threats is the flu virus. This flu season is more virulent than any in recent memory. It seems that every time I walk into the waiting room at MD Anderson Cancer Center, half the patients and caregivers are coughing and look miserable.
My doctor advised me to act as though every surface, door knob, and light switch I touch is covered in flu droplets. If you put your hands up to your face, eyes, nose, or mouth, the likelihood is that you have infected yourself.
The only tool in our arsenal to stay healthy is to stay away from crowds of sick people, especially children and the elderly, and to wash our hands frequently and use hand sanitizer as often as possible.
I have been taking high-dose prednisone these past six weeks while battling ITP. Steroids can be a wonder drug but they are designed to suppress the immune system. My timing could not be better. Let’s see. How about suppressing your immune system just as one of the worst flu seasons in history is getting started. Brilliant!
Mary Pat and I have isolated ourselves in our little temporary apartment. We go out only for long walks around the Rice Village area of Houston. (When she pushes me to walk longer distances, I aggravate her by humming the Colonel Bogey March from the movie Bridge on the River Kwai).
We have stopped eating out at restaurants because so many of the restaurant workers are showing signs of the flu. Unfortunately, many of them can’t afford to stay home for weeks to get over their symptoms. If we order take out food, we nuke it in the microwave to make sure it is safe. As much as we could use some human contact and laughs, we have politely turned down invitations from friends to go to their houses for dinner.
I may be acting paranoid but so far our little survival plan has worked. We are both still healthy and I don’t have any signs of the flu or any upper-respiratory infection despite my compromised immune system.
There was an article in the New York Times yesterday that described how you can survive the flu if you are one of the many unfortunates. The best advice is to stay hydrated and to avoid lying flat for long periods of time.
I learned that lesson while undergoing chemotherapy and my stem cell transplant at MD Anderson. One nurse explained to me that when you are lying flat in the bed, your lungs tend to collapse and fluid builds up. Bacteria love to grow in a wet environment so pneumonia often develops in those who stay in bed all day. If you get up and walk around, your lungs expand and you naturally work the fluids up out of your lungs leaving few pockets of fluid to incubate the bacteria.
I saw the wisdom in that advice immediately after my transplant. The patients on my floor who got up and walked around the halls dragging their IV poles behind them got released early and were healthier looking. The patients who remained in their beds looked awful and by the end of my stay, it looked to me like a high number of them were not going to make it.
I hope all of you survive this flu season. Remember, it’s better to act paranoid than to end up on a ventilator!
On a lighter note, my dose of steroids has decreased from 100 mg per day to about 40 mg per day. My latest platelet count was 52k so it is at least stabilizing. Our hope is that I can maintain my platelet levels with the help of the eltrombopag (Promacta) as I come down off the steroids. If so, Doctor C will probably release me and we can get back home again.
Onward and upwards folks!